One of the core claims made by Barack Obama during his presidential campaign — a commitment absolutely central to his run for the presidency — is that he would change the political culture of Washington. He would, by the force and power of his personality, uproot old habits. He would elevate the national debate, usher in an unprecedented period of transparency, eschew “spin” and the “50 plus one” style of governing, and “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger.
The political culture has changed, but arguably for the worse. Obama has already established himself as the most polarizing first-year president in modern times. Our politics is tumultuous and often dyspeptic; there is anger all around. Those conducting focus groups report that citizens are turning against one another in a way that is disquieting. The political divisions within our society appear to be deepening rather than healing.
From the Obama perspective, the reasons for all this have to do not with him but with his critics. Many of them are, according to some of Obama's chief defenders, people who are racist and bigoted, Klansmen without the robes and hoods, individuals who have not made inner peace with a president who is African-American. Obama's critics are attempting to incite, or about to employ, political violence. Sarah Palin, in particular, uses phrases that act like a dog whistle.
Other Americans, we are told, are simply fearful because of the difficult economic times we face. This is a moment of great discontent. Obama, it is said, is an enlightened agent of change, helping to bring a sometimes reluctant and benighted citizenry from where it is to where it needs to be. This journey, while necessary, can be unsettling. And of course the locus of our divisions can be found in talk radio, the bane of our human existence, and Fox News. These are the pillars of the vast right-wing conspiracy. And vast it is. Barack Obama may have the presidency, Democrats may control the House and the Senate, and most members of the press may have voted, in overwhelming numbers, for Obama — but the right wing is still winning the messaging war. It is both malignant and in possession of almost mythical communication powers.
That, at least, is one narrative. There is another. It goes like this.
President Obama took office with tremendous good will being shown to him. His approval numbers a year ago were in the high 60s. He was an admired figure in many quarters, and the fact that America had elected an African-American was a source of great pride, given that slavery was our country's original sin. Obama also had huge majorities in the House and Senate to work with. Few presidents, upon taking office, had as much working in their favor as did Barack Obama.
But almost from the outset, Obama began pushing an ambitious liberal agenda in a nation that is center-right. Facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis, Obama unveiled initiatives and budgets that made things far worse. In addition, after a yearlong debate on Obamacare, the president is pushing his agenda over the strong objections of most Americans, who are saying, in every way they know how, “Stop.” But Obama is indifferent to their wishes. He knows better.
Add to this the fact that a considerable number of Americans believe that the means that Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have used to pass health care reform are at best questionable and at worst an abuse of power, and you have the ingredients for a popular uprising against Obamaism, which is exactly what is unfolding. It doesn't help, of course, that the White House and its allies attack their critics in a manner that ranges from mocking to vicious.
The combination of an unpopular agenda being advanced through ugly and indefensible back-room deals, without any of the transparency that Obama promised, has created a sense among a growing number of Americans of what the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called “ressentiment,” by which he meant not only opposition but something more: a sense of injury caused by a perceived injustice (James Davison Hunter discusses Nietzsche's views in his new book “To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World”).
Just how troublesome or unusual all of this is remains a debatable matter. My own view is that our debates should be less ad hominem and more spirited, less trivial and more serious. Some trends we are seeing, in terms of the tone and civility in politics, are disturbing. Still, as a general matter, I accept that divisions, partisanship, and polarization are part of the warp and woof of American politics. Within reasonable limits, they are not terribly problematic. And they can even serve a useful function when it comes to clarifying differences.
But that is not the platform on which Mr. Obama ran and won. He raised, to great effect, expectations beyond anything we had ever seen. He is the person who portrayed himself as the healing balm for American politics. He would reach across the aisle. He would inspire comity and common purpose.
We have seen none of this. And while blame can be shared all around, Barack Obama and his style of governing are primarily responsible for the roiled state of American politics today.
The president is violating, on a routine basis, his core campaign commitment. He deserves to be, and he and his party will be, held accountable for the seeds they have sown, for the fissures they have created, and for the disharmony they have caused.
“Hope and change” seem like a lifetime ago.
Pete Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.