Supporters of President Obama typically argue that he’s had to act alone in the course of his presidency because the GOP is preternaturally hostile to him. Most often the argument they offer comes down to racism. They think the underlying animus in the Republican rank and file to Obama is discomfort over his race.
There’s certainly little doubt that there has been a sharpening of partisan lines in recent years, but this goes back much further than our current president’s two terms. Yet there is also little doubt that those lines have hardened during the Obama years. Witness the rise of the Tea Party and now the self-devouring anti-establishment rebellion within the GOP base.
Progressives take pleasure in the current GOP internal division, even if they find the rise of Trump horrifying (never mind that it confirms their most fevered anti-Republican imaginings). There’s no doubt that passions are running high and a lot of those on the GOP side are still directed at the current president. The question is why it’s come to this.
The GOP closed ranks soon after Obama’s election (marked by Sen. Mitch McConnell’s famously intemperate remark about making sure Obama would be a one-term president – a remarkably dumb thing to say publicly even if that is always what political parties aim to do when the other side wins an election). But aside from that initial reaction (of one party hunkering down to protect its turf and regain power) and the usual tension between the legislative and executive branches of government, something more has been going on since Obama stepped into the Oval Office. The left cries racism, and because there has been racist sentiment in some quarters hostile to Obama, it’s inordinately easy for them to make that claim. But it’s simplistic and misleading.
Obama won election to the presidency twice and his racial makeup hasn’t changed in that time. The largest segment of the American electorate clearly has no racial animus. And among those who oppose Obama, most do so because they find his policies wrongheaded. But clearly he has inspired an unusual amount of angst among his opposition during his years in office. Why?
Start with his scornful attitude toward his opponents and then factor in his oft-demonstrated willingness to bend the rules (as in the Constitution) to get his way. Presidents in the past have traditionally reached out to the opposition and tried to win converts to their causes, allies on the legislative side of government. This president hasn’t.
When he controlled both houses of Congress, Obama used the overwhelming support it gave him to push through what he wanted without regard to the concerns of the opposition. Then, losing the House as a result of Americans’ disaffection over the Obamacare political steamroller, he focused on using the Senate, still controlled by Democrats, to stymie any legislation he opposed.
Under then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Congress (which requires joint action by both houses for most things) was paralyzed because Reid controlled the Senate calendar and kept bills sent by the House to the Senate from getting a vote while keeping senatorial legislative initiatives under his tight control, preventing amendments to legislation he supported.
He did it to keep bills that might have presented the president with unpleasant political choices from ever reaching his desk, thereby sparing him the uncomfortable optics of vetoing unwanted legislation or feeling forced to sign something he preferred not to (which is why Obama has had such a sparse veto record during his years in office).
Even after control of the Senate fell to the GOP and Reid lost his ability to manage and dominate the Senate agenda, he used the Senate’s filibuster rule to continue to prevent bills the president didn’t want from coming to a vote and thus reaching his desk (e.g., the filibuster engineered by Reid to block the promised vote on the Iran nuclear deal — a deal cut by the president as an executive agreement rather than as a treaty which the scope of that kind of arrangement between the United States and another country would normally have called for).
So it’s not surprising that there is so much anger on the conservative side of the aisle. Obama has used both congressional majorities and minorities to thwart Republicans in Congress while attacking them from the political stump and condescendingly dismissing them in public interview after public interview.
Rather than reach out to the other side to make his case, to win allies over to his side on particular issues, to work with the opposition, the president has high-handedly gone around them, unhesitatingly using his power to issue executive orders to alter, overrule, or simply replace legislation in this country, thereby usurping the constitutionally designated power of Congress. And he has directed his agencies (see the EPA) to do the same while some of them (like the IRS) have at the least given the appearance of coordinating with members of his administration to act outside of the law.
With that kind of record, no one on the left should wonder why this president inspires such anger and angst in his political opponents. Nor should they simply assume it’s all about race.