In his press conference yesterday, the last before the inauguration, President Obama spoke in a tone remarkable – actually unprecedented — in the post World War II era, perhaps in the history of the nation. He presented himself as the leader, not of the country, but of a faction.
Again and again, the president wasn’t simply confrontational toward the opposition in Congress but contemptuous. In place of the normal ritual at the beginning of second terms, speaking of going forward together, muting the more divisive rhetoric of the campaign, talking of finding common ground for common purpose with leaders in both houses of Congress (one of which is firmly in the hands of the opposition party), the president took exactly the opposite course.
Several times he repeated a list of those who in his telling would suffer if government spending were cut or we went through a shutdown – children, the elderly, our troops, the list went on. After a point, I wondered if he was going to accuse Republicans of drowning puppies next. He offered no acknowledgement – none – that the GOP leadership has put one offer after another one the table, compromising on key principals of taxes and economic growth, to come to the most recent deal.
Instead, when pressed on his own failure to reach out, to socialize, to take on the simple wooing of legislators that is an essential element of presidential leadership, he offered the gratuitous – and to my knowledge incorrect – observations that many Congressional Republicans are such political cowards that they won’t come to White House cookouts, for fear of a backlash at home.
There is a great deal of talk in the media at the moment about American government being broken. I don’t share that view. We are confronting a major turning point and, as it has historically in all such moments, our political system feels as though it can’t decide to go one way or the other.
In a National Review Online column yesterday (http://tinyurl.com/cbfytfx) Michael Barone addressed national turning points, asking, “Is the Entitlement State Winding Down?” He suggested that our history runs in, as he put it, “the American-sounding interval of 76 years, just a few more than the Biblical lifespan of three score and 10.” Washington’s first inaugural to Lincoln’s second was 76 years, as was that moment to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Now are just four years away from the 76 anniversary of the entry into World War II.
Barone suggests that the mark of the present turning point is that the “welfare-state arrangements that once seemed solid are on the path to unsustainability.” If so, many hard negotiations lie ahead. Among the roles of president’s at such moment is seek national unity even as they seek to advance their agenda.
We hear a great deal about Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. Nothing the current president has faced in terms of opposition attacks compares to what Reagan faced during Iran-Contra. It was clear that the Democrats in Congress wanted to close down the Reagan presidency. During this period, Ted Kennedy and his allies in the Senate, who included the current vice president, launched the first and to date one of two most extreme and personal attacks in American history on a presidential nominee to the Supreme Court (the other being against Clarence Thomas, of course).
Yet it was also in this period, the Reagan and O’Neill launched a major move in support of the Afghan resistance against the Soviets (http://tinyurl.com/a49ogqq). Mr. Reagan saw his third pick for the Court confirmed. Indeed, in the last months of his administration, President Reagan was even able to shame a full set of budget bills out of Congress.
The reason wasn’t that Congressional Democrats then were cooperative in a way that the Congressional Republicans are not now. Instead, they set new standards for venom and partisanship that no fair-minded person could say have been exceeded in our time. Rather, it was that the president worked at transcending divisions.
Reagan exemplified all the qualities of charm and courtesy that Mr. Obama seemed to disparage in his press conference. His humor made him a pleasure for even adversaries to be around. And while it is true, as the current president suggested yesterday, that the ultimate sources of our divisions are substantive, much more can be achieved – and have traditionally been achieved — when the presidents have worked the room.
The sad fact is that President Obama appears incapable of reaching in any serious way beyond his faction. It is going to be a long four years in Washington.