The 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston will be remembered not because Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts was portrayed in a favorable light, but because a major political talent made his national debut. A young, personable, idealistic, and liberal African-American U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois, Barack Obama, delivered an inspiring keynote address in which he told an anxious nation that "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and white America and a Latino America and an Asian America—there is the United States of America." And America swooned.
Only the most cynical among us could have penetrated at the time the gauzy scrim that masked Obama’s purpose and ambition as he began his march to the highest office in the land. Little did the audience know that eight years later these supposedly United States would be riven by intense class, race, partisan, and sectarian divisions, as polarized factions struggled to define the size and scope of the federal government.
Little did the audience know that the man who spoke so eloquently at the podium would find himself, less than a decade hence, embracing and exploiting the very same "spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of ‘anything goes,’" who "slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states," that he once denounced.
The Obama legacy is therefore not confined to presiding over the worst economic recovery since World War II. It is distinguished not only by the president’s failure to address adequately or imaginatively America’s broken tax code and budget process, or by his lackadaisical approach to health entitlements. What makes Obama’s presidency ironic and indeed rather tragic is his persistent betrayal of the promises contained in that 2004 speech. The image of Obama as reconciler and unifier grows more distant and faint with each day. The president has not lessened our antagonisms or detoxified our political culture. He has made them worse.
What is most remarkable is Obama’s obstinate refusal to acknowledge the tensions he has aggravated. "I don’t think you or anybody who’s been watching the campaign would say that in any way we have tried to divide the country," he defensively told Entertainment Tonight Wednesday evening. "We’ve always tried to bring the country together."
This was Obama doing his best impression of Captain Renault in Casablanca, a man just shocked, shocked to find division and anger and hatred in the country he has governed for three and a half years. Not 24 hours before the Entertainment Tonight spot, his vice president had told a largely black Democratic audience in southern Virginia that the Romney-Ryan ticket would "put y’all back in chains." These are the men who are trying "to bring the country together"?
At the beginning of August, the president’s affiliated Super PAC released an incendiary advertisement that implied Romney was somehow responsible for the death of a steelworker’s wife by cancer. Obama’s campaign had featured the same steelworker on a conference call in the spring, before it shifted its focus to what may or may not be in Romney’s tax returns and whether the Republican nominee may have once committed a felony. At multiple points during this week’s Iowa visit the president himself ridiculed Mitt Romney for taking a family trip with the dog kennel on the roof of the car. This is months after he had described the House Republican budget, which Ryan authored, as "thinly veiled Social Darwinism" that is "antithetical to our entire history."
The attacks and slanders and demands for apologies grew so intense a week before the first party convention that veterans of the mainstream media struggled to find a precedent for the warfare. "All restraints are gone, the guardrails have disappeared, and there is no incentive for anyone hold back," wrote 30-year veteran Dan Balz of the Washington Post. "This is about as ugly as I’ve seen it," Brit Hume said on Fox. Mark Helprin of Time and MSNBC called it "nuclear war."
The merchants of snark on the Internet and cable juxtaposed sarcastically the campaign sludge-fest with the candidates’ stated desire for a thoughtful contrast between the big choices facing the country. Yet the cynics and smirking pundits missed the point: The importance and clarity of this election is precisely why it has been so dirty and bitter and cruel.
Anemic economic growth and the albatross of Obamacare have pushed Obama’s approval rating to worrisome levels for an incumbent. His re-election depends on turning out his base of white liberals, Millennials, and minorities at levels similar to 2008. Otherwise the game is over. Obama, Biden, David Axelrod, Jim Messina, and David Plouffe know that fear motivates people. The president and his allies have thus spent the last eight months distributing goodies while demonizing the Republicans. Obama’s abandonment of his 2004 persona was neither an accident nor a casualty of politics. It was a strategic choice.
The appeal to liberals began with the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline in January and continued through Obama’s hastily arranged endorsement of same-sex marriage in early May. His promises to shift the tax burden increasingly on the wealthy, as well as his rhetorical pose of middle-class populism, also set liberal hearts aflutter.
For the young, Obama offers subsidies for college tuition, the ability to stay on parental health plans until age 26, free birth control, an end to the war in Afghanistan, and the prospect of a diverse, nonjudgmental, technological, secular future.
Obama has treated the minority vote the most cynically. Striking fear in the black community is part of the strategy. Biden’s remarks in Virginia did not occur in isolation. Last year the chairman of the Democratic National Committee accused the Republicans of wanting "to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws." In May, Attorney General Eric Holder told the Council of Black Churches that Republicans have created a situation in which "some of the achievements that defined the civil rights movement now hang in the balance." The controversy over constitutional and popular state legislation to require photo identification at the polls has become so agitated and raw that even mild-mannered authors pen screeds describing half the country as "oligarchs and racists clad in the skins of dead elephants."
The president’s media supporters tried to portray Romney’s speech to the NAACP as a sort of racial insult. Shortly after the Republican ticket was announced, Obama donor and rap mogul Russell Simmons wrote that Romney-Ryan "will destroy our people." This week, too, the Obama administration filed a Supreme Court amicus brief defending race-based affirmative action. The racial and ethnic lines have been drawn.
When the people’s representatives in Congress blocked the DREAM Act amnesty for young, illegal immigrants, Obama took matters into his own hands and declared it policy in June. The executive action went into effect Wednesday. The lines of Millennial-generation undocumented aliens stretching for blocks in America’s largest cities testified to Obama’s "slice-and-dice" approach to politics. ICE agents might as well have handed out "Obama Biden 2012" buttons along with the work permits. Meanwhile the president promises to enact "comprehensive immigration reform" in a second term.
That this Balkanization of the American electorate might have been avoided comes as cold comfort. Whether it was at the 2004 Democratic convention, or Election Night 2008 at Grant Park, or Inauguration Day 2009, or the memorial ceremony for the victims of the Tucson shooting in January 2011, or the televised address on the killing of Osama bin Laden that May, Americans have always responded to Obama when he speaks to them as the leader of the entire nation, not as the leader of a political party or of the progressive movement.
Time and again, however, Obama has missed opportunities to seize the ground of national unity and possibly split the GOP. He could have for example included defense funding in the stimulus bill, or decided to go back to the drawing board on health care after Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts, or embraced fully the Bowles-Simpson Commission’s recommendations in January 2011. He did none of these things. What we got instead was a mobilization of the center-left coalition toward partisan ends that had been on the agenda for years and in some cases decades. What we got was an unshackled and unhinged country whose people are at each other’s throats.
"Alongside our famous individualism," Barack Obama said in 2004, "there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we’re all connected as one people." That sentiment may have been true once. It certainly isn’t true now. Barack Obama’s America is an America coming apart.