How Obama divided America

The President’s aggressive policy agenda has reignited partisan politics

How Obama divided AmericaIt was the largest protest march, so far, of Obama’s presidency. They came from around the country on Sept. 12, tens of thousands of people filling Pennsylvania Avenue en route to the White House, where only months earlier an ecstatic crowd had celebrated the election of the first black president of the United States and the end of the Bush era.

Now they came in anger, with signs declaring “Tax Slave Revolt” and “Stop Spending our Grandkids’ Futures,” and chanting “No Obamacare.” One sign read, “National health care doesn’t work. Just ask Canada.” Some aimed personally at the President. “Let’s see your records! Let’s see your birth certificate!” shouted one man into a megaphone. Others chanted simply, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

Unlike the young and racially mixed crowds that poured out for the inauguration, this crowd was overwhelmingly white, and mostly older. These were the people Obama was supposed to reach, to soothe, to win over with his “post-partisan” politics and his stirring campaign slogan of uniting “Red and Blue America into a United States of America.” Instead, Red America was not greeting him with flowers. “We came unarmed—this time!” read one placard. During the hard-fought Democratic primary contest against Hillary Rodham Clinton, part of Obama’s argument was that he was going to move past rigid divides between the political left and right, that he offered a generational turning of the page on the ideological battles of the 1960s that had moulded Clinton’s generation. But now this promise seems to ring as hollow as candidate George W. Bush’s pledge in the 2000 campaign to be “a uniter, not a divider.”

Over the summer, town halls discussing Obama’s health care reform turned into shouting matches, with some attendees showing up with weapons. When the President prepared a motivational back-to-school speech to schoolchildren, some parents pulled their kids from class to escape what they feared would be liberal brainwashing. (A prepared lesson plan would have asked kids what they can do to “help the President.” It was scrapped.) When he stood up to give a speech to a joint session of Congress about health care reform, a Republican from South Carolina took the unprecedented step of shouting, “You lie!” Congressional Democrats censured him, but some in the Washington protest crowd carried signs that read, “Joe Wilson is my hero.” Former president Jimmy Carter concluded that the backlash had to do with Obama’s race. “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man,” Carter said on Sept. 15. When comedian David Letterman asked Obama if he agreed with Carter, Obama joked, “I think it’s important to realize that I was actually black before the election.” A White House spokesman portrayed the turmoil as merely a policy “disagreement.”

It is more than that.

Since March, a yawning gap in approval ratings for Obama has opened up between Republicans and Democrats—even bigger than George W. Bush’s. It has led critics to call him not only a polarizing figure, but the most polarizing president in history. Obama’s election win was respectable, but close: 53 per cent of the vote, compared to John McCain’s 46. Still, he entered office on a wave of popularity. His approval ratings were a much stronger 64 per cent prior to his inauguration in January, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press; some polls had him in the 70s. Now he has dropped to 52 per cent approval, with only 18 per cent of Republicans approving of him, a drop from 30 per cent in April. Obama’s partisan gap is bigger than Bush’s because more Democrats still back him—82 per cent, down from 92 per cent in the spring. “When a president’s job approval is higher than the vote in the election, that suggests there are people who voted against him giving him the benefit of the doubt,” says Michael Dimock, a pollster at Pew, which does extensive presidential polling. “He started from a very high point in February and March, but his approval ratings have fallen substantially.”

Indeed. The proverbial honeymoon ended quickly: the seeds of division were planted with the massive US$787-billion economic stimulus bill—which drew plenty of criticism and not a single vote from Republicans in the House (and only three GOP votes in the Senate) when it passed in February—and the ballooning deficit. A Pew poll this month found that 61 per cent of Republicans consider Obama “not trustworthy,” up from 35 per cent in February. The President has also lost support among moderate and conservative Democrats. And his support among independents is down too.

The story of Obama’s current decline can be boiled down to three parts. One involves an underlying cultural shift in America, one is Obama’s aggressive policy agenda and some missteps in how he is implementing it, and the third is the largely overlooked role of George W. Bush.

There is a significant amount of personal animosity to Obama—some 10 per cent of Americans falsely believe he was born in Kenya, not in the U.S., and is not legally entitled to be president. But the loud conservative backlash brewing in the country is bigger than Obama, and started in the waning days of the Bush administration. There had long been a drumbeat of criticism on the right over the “un-conservative” things Bush did: from his plans for amnesty for illegal aliens to his massive deficits, and passing the largest new entitlement since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s—a Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors—without finding the money for it. But a watershed moment came in September 2008 when the financial crisis began to unfold and the Bush administration swiftly moved in. There was the US$700-billion Wall Street bailout (followed by revelations that top executives still received lucrative bonuses while taxpayers footed the bill for the survival of their companies), and then Washington’s expansion into a dizzying number of companies. The government now accounts for 26 per cent of the American economy, the most since the Second World War. It owns the lion’s share of insurer AIG, has a majority stake in General Motors, and finances most consumer credit card and mortgage lending in the country.

The Obama administration insists the measures are temporary, but a large number of Americans are bewildered at the massive, rapid changes they have witnessed. Many of the protesters who came to Washington on Sept. 12 carried signs denouncing Obama or Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, but just as many were raising their voice against “big government” and the debt being left to their children and grandchildren. They were mostly Republicans, but they were not shy about denouncing Bush or congressional GOPers either. “When Bush said we need to abandon free market principles to save the free market, that’s when I almost went blind!” said Jim Wilford, a 33-year-old Republican entrepreneur from Mays Landing, N.J., who carried a sign comparing members of Congress to space aliens. What brought him into the streets? “Everything,” he said, “The whole government is jacked up—Republicans and Democrats. The common people have to make their voices heard.” He listed as his concerns out-of-control government spending, health care reform, the auto bailout, and “the socialistic and Marxist ideologies invading the consciousness of the government.”

If Bush’s Wall Street bailout and the growth of government got many Americans steamed, Obama took those embers and lit a bonfire. “When he was elected, I thought he was very sincere. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and thought that things would go well,” recalled Brenda Pitts, a 64-year-old retiree from Charleston, S.C., who calls herself a middle-of-the-line fiscal conservative. But she was aghast at Obama’s ambitious agenda, which encompasses spending on everything from alternative energy, road building, health care and education to tax credits for homebuyers. “He’s spending too much money!” she said. “I think our country is going in the wrong direction. We are going toward socialism. I am against socialized medicine.”

To say that Obama’s policies are socialistic is an overstatement. He has allowed the idea of a government-run health insurance alternative to wither in Congress, and is now backing a reform that would, in essence, allow the federal government to subsidize the working poor to buy private insurance (an approach that Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney pushed through in Massachusetts while he was governor there). It’s also a plan that Hillary Clinton last week referred to as “so conservative.”

However, the big picture of a vast and whirlwind expansion of government power and spending in the past year is undeniable. While Democrats say that Obama inherited a record deficit from Bush, Republicans counter that Obama’s “borrow-and-spend” policies will triple the national debt by 2019—from US$5.8 trillion to US$17.3 trillion. And the anxiety and backlash that has produced in a nation where half the population considers capitalism synonymous with patriotism should not come as a surprise.

Obama’s contribution to the divisiveness that continues to bedevil America has not been in his personal style, which remains conciliatory and open. “Obama himself is about the least divisive president you could imagine,” says Leo Ribuffo, a political historian at George Washington University. “Unlike Carter or Clinton, Obama temperamentally really is a compromiser. That may have to do with his experiences growing up or his understanding that a black president can frighten whites. You could argue that he’s not fighting back enough.”

But on substance, he has done little to assuage concerns about the growth of big government and the ballooning debt. On the contrary, he moved ahead with an ambitious agenda. And health care reform, in particular, was bound to be divisive. But rather than apply his personal middle-of-the-road approach from the beginning, he let the more liberal-leaning leaders in the House—where Democrats hold a 256 to 178 seat majority—set the terms of the debate. The bill put forward by the House, which would cost more than a trillion dollars, and which includes a government-run health insurance option, was anathema to many conservatives and is unlikely to survive the Senate, where the Democratic advantage is a slimmer 59 to 40.

On top of health care reform, the scope of his remaining agenda is fuelling anxiety. “Most people are just upset at how big and how fast this guy is trying to go,” said David McClatchy, a 73-year-old retiree from Philadelphia who drove to the Washington protest with buddies in a rented van and brandished a sign that read, “Stop spending my money.” A better approach to health care reform, McClatchy said, would have been to start with legal reforms to make it more difficult to sue doctors so they would order fewer unnecessary tests, and then to subsidize poor people to buy health insurance—“Not everything at once.” McClatchy opposes the growth of government: “I didn’t agree with Bush’s spending either.” But as for Obama, “He lied about the kind of person he was. I think he is a Marxist.”

But the promise of unification may have been illusory from the start. “For about a hundred years the mainstream of American politics has been in denial about conflict, and emphasizes that we should all work together,” says Ribuffo. “There is considerable real conflict in the U.S. It’s not Pakistan or Afghanistan, and we don’t have a secessionist party controlling one of our states, but there are real differences.”

It comes down to a fundamental ideological rift over the role of government—a mainstay of American politics regardless of who is in power. “The U.S. is not Canada, France or Sweden,” Ribuffo says. “It has a long anti-statist tradition of powerful conservatives. And there is no reason to think it would go away. I know to the rest of the world it may seem odd for these bits of government intervention to seem extraordinary. But we have to remember that the American Republican party is the most successful free market party in the world.”

Indeed, listening to some of the protesters who converged on Washington on Sept. 12 suggests the chasm may be unbridgeable. Retiree Pitts blames Obama for having “totally failed” to unite the country. As for Bush’s failure to do so, she blames it on “Democratic smear tactics” against the Iraq war. “No one could ever convince me that Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction,” she says. “He just had them hidden.”

Likewise, protester Wilford, a father of four, can’t be convinced to support Obama’s health care reform, which he opposes on principle—even though he cannot afford to buy health insurance for his own family, but earns too much to qualify for Medicaid, the program for low-income people. “We don’t have health care. We will pay for it on our own. We’re health conscious,” said Wilford. If he gets a large bill, “We’ll work it out with the hospital.” He has no interest in the health care reform which is supposed to help make it more affordable for people in his position to buy insurance. “It’s all a power grab. It’s disgusting,” he said.

The Pew Center has been polling on a variety of political questions over the year, and Dimock sees two major trends that both point to political divisiveness and alienation. First, Democrats and Republicans are growing further apart on fundamental questions. “There is more divisiveness on social welfare and the government safety net,” he says. “There are bigger gaps over affirmative action. There is more divisiveness on assertiveness in foreign policy, on environmental issues. Our polls suggest that Republicans have grown much more conservative in recent years.” The second trend is a growing alienation of grassroots America from Washington and the two-party system. One striking result is that more people identify as “independents” than at any time since 1992, when a strong independent candidate, Ross Perot, ran for president. “We have been tracking for a long time a growing divisiveness in American politics and a growing frustration with the federal government and the way politics is done,” Dimock says. “Maybe it was always there, but it has gotten a lot more intense in recent years,” he adds.

The growth in divisions between Republicans and Democrats does not mean, however, that Democrats are becoming more liberal—another obstacle for Obama’s agenda. On the contrary: when Pew did a major survey on Americans’ values in May, they realized it was a major misperception that Obama’s election was a vote for a bigger role for government.

In fact, fewer Democrats supported government borrowing to support a social safety net than had two years earlier. “On virtually every question on the role of government we saw the numbers keep steady or decline, especially on the social safety net, which is remarkable in a time of economic crisis,” Dimock says. “Even on regulation, in light of the failure of financial regulation, there was no huge decline in basic belief [among Democrats and Americans at large] that the free market is essential. There was no sea change in liberal direction with Obama’s election. Skepticism of government only grew with the crisis.” As a result, there has been no populist pro-government wave for Obama to ride.

Obama has so far not been as confrontational with his opponents as Bill Clinton, who gambled on a stand-off with Republicans in 1995 over a budget dispute, in which their filibustering shut down the government and hurt the GOP’s image with voters. “If Obama was more confrontational he might just say, okay, filibuster, talk yourself to death and we’ll see how the population responds to your holding up the government,” says Ribuffo. But Ribuffo also notes that Obama does not need to unite the country behind his agenda to get it done. “It’s a myth that important legislation gets passed when the country is united,” he says. “It gets passed when one group has a manageable majority and the minority is complaining. That was the case with Social Security under Roosevelt and with tax cuts under Reagan.”

In fact, several recent polls show Obama’s favourability ratings stabilizing. “The people who are put off by the nature of the health care bill formed their opinions early on and the impact has happened by now,” says Dimock. “Obama is not losing more people over health care anymore. Those people were turned away in July and August. The vast majority of Americans want to see health care reforms. Whether they are comfortable with the details is contestable, but he still does have the basic balance of public opinion on his side when he stands before Congress and says he wants something done this year.” Obama may not be able to claim he has unified the nation, but, at least for now, he doesn’t need to.

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