On Reflection, I’m Surprisingly OK With Where Obama Is on Syria

When President Obama changed course abruptly on Saturday and announced that instead of attacking Assad’s regime in Syria, he would “seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress,” my immediate reaction was to roll my eyes.  Here we go again, trying to have it both ways.  It’s reminiscent of announcing a surge in Afghanistan, then simultaneously announcing a date certain for beginning to draw down the extra troops.

Conservative pundits whose national security opinions I generally respect jumped on Obama with both feet.  Commentary magazine editor John Podhoretz breached the magazine’s normal practice of not publishing new material on the Jewish Sabbath, with a blog post headlined “Obama’s Bizarre Syria Policy.”  The next day, Peter Wehner weighed in with a blander headline, but stated high in his post that “President Obama has handled the Syrian situation with staggering incompetence.” They both make a strong case, which you can read for yourselves.

Other pundits opined that the delay would give Assad time to hide his chemical weapons; that it made Obama look ridiculous to decide we should strike Syria, but delay it until Congress returns from vacation; and asked why does the commander-in-chief think he needs Congressional approval for limited military action in Syria, but did not feel the same way in Libya?

All reasonable arguments.  But then military leaders declared that the delay is not a significant tactical setback.  Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said:

Many of Assad’s assets we’d like to target are “fixed installations” he can’t move; the amount of intelligence and surveillance assets being devoted to the region should make it difficult for him to move matériel out of sight; and Assad’s current position, engulfed in a civil war, means he can’t exactly be moving military units, such as rockets or artillery, as he wishes.

Obama can be criticized for being indecisive, which is not what you want in a commander-in-chief.  But stubborn persistence also can be taken too far.  President George W. Bush — whose decision to overthrow Saddam I supported then and support to this day — has to answer for staying with a failed strategy in Iraq for years after it was clear a change was needed.

I think faster action on Syria might well have been preferable for the immediate tactical situation.  But if Obama succeeds in getting Congressional approval — a big if, but not impossible — it may be worth it in the long run to have an intervention supported by Democrats as well as Republicans.

Despite Obama’s wishful declaration that “this war, like all wars, must end,” the war against Islamic extremism will certainly outlast his presidency — and it may outlive all of us.  Future presidents will also have to wrestle with how to make war against Middle Eastern terrorists and despots, and I’m thankful that Obama is helping to build a bipartisan history of asserting America’s strength.

(Syrian flag from Wikipedia)

Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of “The Dream Series”

The logo is 30 years old now, and looks its age.  In that pre-Photoshop era, it was laboriously created by hand, with physical layers of text, photo and black tape on a two-column backing cut from a newspaper layout page.  (The light blue typography guides didn’t show up when the page was shot back then — my 21st Century scanner uses different technology.)

I slapped the logo on the inside cover of my 1980 AP stylebook after the conclusion of what all of us referred to as “the Dream series.” I still have the stylebook, and the logo is not going anywhere — it was designed to be moved and reused, but the paste has fused the logo to the book cover.

What may be the greatest speech in American history (Gettysburg? Please.) led to what undoubtedly was the most lucrative week of my brief career in journalism.  I was on the night copy desk at what was then The Home News, a family-owned, 60,000-circulation newspaper in New Brunswick, NJ.  For the 20th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, a team of reporters wrote a huge, week-long series of articles examining race relations and issues in Central Jersey from every perspective you can imagine.  (There was even an article about racial imbalance at The Home News itself — I think there were seven or eight black employees out of a workforce of perhaps 200.  The article carefully noted that union contracts compelled the company to hire its typographers, printers and drivers from among the membership of the respective trade unions — and all of those employees were white.)

I’ve lost track of the tear sheets, unfortunately, but as I recall the series included two to three full pages of articles every day for seven days, or maybe it was five days, in addition to the normal news hole.  It was a huge commitment of staff and other resources for a small daily.

The powers that be decided they wanted one editor to do all of the copy editing, headline writing and layout for the series, to give it a consistent look and feel.  That editor was me — and I was told to do it all on overtime, because they couldn’t spare me from my regular duties.  So after each day’s local news was put to bed, I started working on the following day’s batch of Dream series stories.  I ended up putting in for my normal 37.5-hour work week (union contract, you know) plus 37.5 hours of overtime, because that’s what it happened to total.  The payroll department thought I was putting in for a week’s vacation pay in advance, so they paid it out at straight time, and corrected it to time-and-a-half the following week.

The New Jersey Press Association gave the paper a special award for the series, along with a $1,500 prize.  The company matched the prize and passed out low-three-figure bonuses to the reporters, and to a copy editor who already had been well-paid for the project.

I was five years old when Dr. King gave the speech, and most of the reporters on the Dream series were around the same age.  We all marveled at the impact of this man and this speech, and at what had (and had not) changed in 20 years.  None of us dreamed that the 50th anniversary would arrive with a black man in the White House.

5 Questions About George Zimmerman’s (Appropriate) Acquittal

Police photo of George Zimmerman after the shooting

1.  Did the prosecution prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that George Zimmerman was not acting in self-defense when he pulled the trigger?

This actually was the only question the jury needed to decide.  If the answer is no, then racial profiling, Florida’s stand-your-ground law and all the rest are irrelevant.  As law professor and legal über-blogger Eugene Volokh writes, “once the defense introduces any evidence of possible self-defense, the prosecution must disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.” If the jury concludes that the prosecution has failed to meet this test — and given Zimmerman’s injuries and the testimony that Trayvon Martin was on top,  they could not honorably have reached any other conclusion — then murder and manslaughter are both off the table.

2.  So was Zimmerman blameless in Martin’s death? 

Gracious, no.  He disregarded the dispatcher’s (regrettably understated) instruction not to follow Martin, and he sure as hell should never have gotten out of his car.  If Zimmerman had not been playing wannabe cop, Trayvon Martin would be alive today.  But as William Saletan said in a thoughtful and well-researched Slate article, Zimmerman’s actions “make him a reckless fool instead of a murderer.”

3.  If Zimmerman was at fault, shouldn’t he be punished?

In our legal system, a defendant can be convicted only of the specific charges leveled against him or her.  Zimmerman was charged, ludicrously, with second-degree murder, and manslaughter is a lesser included charge.  I wonder if Zimmerman could have been charged with reckless endangerment, or impersonating a police officer, or some such.  If self-defense gets Zimmerman acquitted for pulling the trigger, maybe he could have been convicted of a much-lesser crime for his actions before pulling the trigger.

4.  Will the U.S. Justice Department bring civil rights or hate-crime charges against Zimmerman?

Unfortunately, that’s the way to bet, given that race-obsessed Attorney General Eric Holder runs a thoroughly politicized Justice Department.  The evidence supporting self-defense will be just as strong the second time around, but there’s no telling what a jury might do.  But Zimmerman can take some hope from a CNN article about Holder’s statements in the aftermath of the shooting last year:

“For a federal hate crime, we have to prove the highest standard in the law,” Holder said in April 2012, 45 days after Zimmerman shot the African American teenager in what was depicted by civil rights groups as a racially motivated killing.

In words that now sound prescient, Holder described to reporters that day how “something that was reckless, that was negligent does not meet that standard.”

5.  How has President Obama behaved in this saga?

Once again, as in the arrest of Professor Gates, Obama irresponsibly inserted himself into a racially charged local legal issue.  His statement that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” could have had the effect of tainting the jury pool and making it harder for Zimmerman to get a fair trial.  To the credit of the jurors, they withstood all of the pressures, acknowledged the reasonable doubt and reached the verdict demanded by that doubt.  To Obama’s credit, his statement after the acquittal was better: “We are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”

(Public domain police photo via Wikipedia)

 

SCOTUS Gets It Right on Same-Sex Marriage — and on Voting Rights Act

The Web Goddess and I joined a small but joyous impromptu gathering yesterday evening on the steps of Maplewood Town Hall, celebrating the Supreme Court decisions in support of marriage equality for same-sex couples.

I’ve blogged and demonstrated in favor of marriage equality for years, so I’ll not rehearse those arguments today.  Instead, I’m moved to take keyboard in hand by a comment I heard expressed twice on the Town Hall steps yesterday, to the effect that the Supreme Court “got one right the day after they got one wrong.”

A day earlier, the high court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, ruling that conditions have changed in the South since 1965. In the minds of many at yesterday’s rally, this was a setback for black rights that partly offset the victory for gay rights the following day.

But I see both rulings as a victory for federalism, or for states’ rights if you will — and anyone tempted to dismiss “states’ rights” as code for bigotry should pause to reflect on the pioneering role of the states in the marriage equality struggle.

The VRA ruling has the limited effect of restoring to nine states of the old Confederacy (and various smaller jurisdictions) the same level of control over the election process exercised by other states.  The federal government and the courts retain the power to invalidate any specific election practice that is discriminatory.  The VRA ruling simply shifts the burden of proof from the states to the parties seeking to demonstrate discrimination.

The pre-clearance provision of VRA was an extraordinary response to an extraordinary level of institutionalized racism, and I have no quarrel with the need for such a measure in 1965. But NBC News cited statistics compiled by the court that show how dramatically the situation has changed:

In Alabama, for example, the white registration rate was 69 percent and the black rate 19 percent in 1965. By 2004, that gap had all but disappeared — 74 percent for whites and 73 percent for blacks.

As George Will noted, “Mississippi has more black elected officials — not more per capita; more — than any other state.”

The South no longer deserves a presumption of guilt on racial matters.

(Photo by Bernie Poppe)

Boy Scouts Teach an Imperfect Lesson Against Discrimination

Years of sitting in a drawer have taken their toll on the medal, but I’m still proud to have it

Boy Scout Troop 166 met on Tuesday evenings at Monroe Junior High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and played a formative role in my childhood.  It was a very active troop, with monthly campouts and week-long, 50-mile hikes in the summers.  I was in the Raccoon Patrol, and I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back out with the Scouts, twice.  I learned how to cook over a fire, how to tie knots, how to provide CPR, how to read a map and use a compass.  I learned about teamwork, and responsibility, and citizenship, and service.  I would not be the man I am today without Scouting, and I will treasure the experience as long as I live.

The man I am today also passionately believes that gay people should not be discriminated against in any way, and I’ve blogged about this many times.  I’ve written that same-sex marriage is a fundamental human rights issue, and the only acceptable outcome is full marriage equality.

I’m happy and relieved that the Boy Scouts voted today to allow openly gay boys to participate.  My joy is tempered by the fact that openly gay adults still are banned from Scout leadership.  It will take a few years — maybe even quite a few — but one day that barrier also will fall.  Today’s vote is the equivalent of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the military — not good enough, but a step in the right direction, and the best that could be accomplished at the time.

The Boy Scout Oath ends with a promise “to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.” I have no patience with the people who brandish “morally straight” as a reason to exclude gays — but there is some logic, of course, behind the ban on gay adults.  Very few adult men of any orientation would ever prey on underage children — but the number is not zero, and predators gravitate toward situations where potential victims are plentiful.  That’s why the Girl Scouts don’t send men to their campouts, and I have no quarrel with that.

The boys could learn something from the girls.  I was chatting the other day with a woman who is active in the New York City leadership of the Girl Scouts.  She told me that they have no prohibition against lesbian Scout leaders — just a common-sense understanding that any such leader should be paired with another adult woman during events or activities.  Surely any openly gay Scout leader of either gender would want such a chaperone for their own protection against false accusations.

 

Three Questions on the IRS Scandal

In the category of simple answers to complicated questions, I offer the following:

Is this Obama’s Watergate?

Not even close.

Watergate started with an unambiguous crime — the break-in — and the president of the United States participated for many months in a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice in the cover-up.  Nearly 40 people went to prison because of Watergate.

The current IRS scandal started with behavior that was utterly inappropriate — using the awesome power of the IRS to subject Obama opponents to extraordinary levels of harassment.  But it’s not at all clear that any crime has been committed, and despite the overheated calls for jail time from Governor Bobby Jindahl and Speaker John Boehner, it’s likely that nobody will go to jail for the IRS misdeeds.

I admire Peggy Noonan, but she mars her otherwise excellent appraisal of the matter when she starts by saying “We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate.”  There are other candidates for the title of Worst Since Watergate, but for discussion purposes let’s stipulate that her statement is narrowly correct.  It’s still misleading.  It’s like saying the economic crisis that began in 2008 was “the worst downturn since the Great Depression.”  Even if that’s true — and again, other nominees are available — it’s inappropriate to make comparisons with the Depression, when unemployment reached 25%.

Is the IRS scandal, along with Benghazi revelations and the subpoenas of journalist phone records, going to damage the effectiveness of the administration in Obama’s second term?

Yes.

It’s four short months since Inauguration Day, and the second-term jinx has struck President Obama unusually early.  Iran-contra erupted two years into Ronald Reagan’s second term.    The Lewinsky scandal was first disclosed a full year into Clinton’s second term.  The Iraq War started before George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election, but at this point in his second term a majority of Americans still supported the war, and consistent majority opposition did not take hold until 2006.

This isn’t Watergate, but it’s not chopped liver.  The IRS story has legs.  Congressional hearings will continue for months.  We’ll hear more and more stories like that of Catherine Englebrecht, a small business owner turned Tea Party activist in Texas, who was harassed by not just the IRS but also by the FBI, BATF and OSHA after she formed a Tea Party-related non-profit.  Agree or disagree with her politics, but the story is appalling — and Democrats are going to realize that someday, another Republican administration will be in power.  Liberal icon Jon Stewart last week lashed out at President Obama as savagely as I’ve ever seen, mocking the president’s transparent posturing at a news conference and ridiculing his repeated claims over the years that he only learned about various controversies via the news media.

Who’s the biggest winner in the IRS scandal?

The Tea Party.

What better demonstration could there be about the dangers of excessive government power than a scandal in which the Tea Party, which advocates smaller government, is targeted improperly by some of the government’s most powerful agencies?

 

We “Shouldn’t” Speculate About Boston Bombing Perpetrators, But of Course We Do

Much about the Boston Marathon bombing reeks of domestic terrorism — it happened on Income Tax Day, near the April 19 anniversary of Waco and Oklahoma City, and on the Patriot’s Day holiday weekend in Massachusetts.  Patriot’s Day is a symbolic two-fer — it commemorates the Battles of Lexington & Concord, which actually occurred on April 19, but the day is observed each year on the third Monday of April, which this year was April 15.  The location also evokes thoughts, fairly or otherwise, of the Boston Tea Party and the modern Taxed Enough Already party movement.

But wait!  The talking head on CNN just said that the use of pressure cookers in bomb-making is a signature of the Taliban!  A clue!  But it turns out the Taliban has published bomb-making instructions on the internet.  And the Google tells me that the al-Qaeda English-language Inspire magazine published a recipe on using pressure cookers to make bombs.  But another CNN talking head just said “a U.S. official” had said there was no evidence that this is al-Qaeda’s work (I can’t find a link).  OK, so maybe a hitherto unknown, independent Islamist terror group?

Wait, maybe it’s a government conspiracy, just like 9/11 was! At the very first press conference Monday afternoon, a man variously identified as “a heckler” and a “reporter” for the (conservative!) Infowars website, asked:

Questioner: “Why were loudspeakers telling people in the audience to be calm moments before the bomb went off?  Is this another false flag staged attack to take our civil liberties away while promoting Homeland Security, who are sticking their hands down our pants on the street?”

Gov. Duval: “No. Next question?”

Props to the Guv for handling it just right.  I would have said “Just shut up,” which would only have provided more ammunition.  (The transcription above is mine, based on video from the news conference.)  Props also to the California man who promptly registered BostonMarathonConspiracy.com,  “to keep some conspiracy kook from owning it.”

The first-best advice I saw on speculation came from Andrew McCarthy, former federal terrorism prosecutor and now a pundit for National Review (among others).  About 90 minutes after the blast, he wrote:

First, it is a mistake to get too far out in front of the initial reports, which are almost always wrong in some details — sometimes, in some major details. …

The recent history of terrorist attacks is that investigators figure out who is responsible within a very short period of time, both because of the high priority such investigations are given and the tendency of terrorists to signal their responsibility for what they’ve done (after all, the point of terrorism is to leave us intimidated by the terrorists, so they obviously feel the need to brag). We will know who did this soon. It is counterproductive to do much speculation.

Counterproductive, yes.  But how can we help ourselves?

Other musings

My reaction to the initial reports was blasé.  I saw a headline something like “At Least 6 Hurt in Boston Marathon Explosion,” and I shrugged and went back to what I was doing.  But I got sucked in pretty quickly.

Because of the backstory behind this blog’s name, my ears always perk up at any reference to the word “evil.”  I believe evil exists and it’s important to call it that.  President Bush — he of the “Axis of Evil” and of “We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name” — was very comfortable with the term.  Props to President Obama for not letting neocon cooties deter him.  After praising the reactions of first responders, both professional and amateur, Obama said “If you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil, that’s it: selflessly, compassionately, unafraid.”

OK, I could quibble with “unafraid,” I’d substitute “bravely,” a way one can act while being afraid.  But in the words of Jennifer Rubin, who is often a harsh Obama critic: “His job, before there are concrete answers, is to exude calm. He did that.”

Just so.

(Public domain photo via Wikipedia)

Partisan Lines Start to Blur in Drone Debate

Reaper droneIn this era of hyperpartisanship, I find myself fascinated by any issue that begins to cut across party lines.*

I largely ignored the Rand Paul drone-related filibuster when it happened, because it seemed quixotic and unserious.  I’m a critic of the president, but it had never occurred to me to worry that Obama might drone-bomb Jane Fonda.  I was mildly surprised when pundits began saying the filibuster had increased Paul’s stature in the Republican party.

But I only started focusing on the issue when a handful of (fairly) prominent Democrats began strongly challenging the Democratic president’s cloak of secrecy over the drone campaign. It had been a role-reversal debate, with Republicans seeking to limit a president’s war-making authority while Democrats largely remained silent.

A hat tip to Seth Mandel of Commentary, who linked to op-eds by former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman (headlined “Rand Paul is Right“) and former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta (“Obama Should Lift Secrecy on Drones“).   Harman starts with a too-categorical declaration:

Inside the United States, without exception, an American suspected of plotting a terror attack should never be targeted by an armed drone. Period.

Four short paragraphs later, Harman concedes there is an appropriate exception:

In the domestic context, drones should never be used against citizens unless there is an armed conflict on U.S. soil.

While Harman skips ahead to the policy outcome she favors, Podesta’s approach is more procedural, and to my mind more appropriate.

[T]he White House is still bobbing and weaving on whether to share with Congress the legal opinions and memorandums governing targeted killing, which include the legal justification for killing U.S. citizens without trial.

The Obama administration is wrong to withhold these documents from Congress and the American people. I say this as a former White House chief of staff who understands the instinct to keep sensitive information secret and out of public view. It is beyond dispute that some information must be closely held to protect national security and to engage in effective diplomacy, and that unauthorized disclosure can be extraordinarily harmful. But protecting technical means, human sources, operational details and intelligence methods cannot be an excuse for creating secret law to guide our institutions.

The drone controversy highlights once again the crucial differences between law enforcement and war.  Certainly the Osama bin Laden takedown could not have been accomplished by American law enforcement efforts, and the mission was surely “illegal,” at least from the Pakistani point of view. But it was the greatest positive accomplishment of the Obama presidency, and when America is at war, the commander in chief must have considerable latitude to take the battle to the enemy.

Anwar al-Awlaki

I have no qualms whatsoever about taking out Anwar al-Awlaki, a nominal American citizen and an influential enemy leader, with a drone strike in Yemen.  But the situation is completely different on U.S. soil, where a civilian SWAT team with a warrant can reasonably be expected to capture an enemy or kill him in the attempt.

By all means let’s have a public debate over drone policy, and I agree with Podesta that the president should be more forthcoming with Congress.  But it’s impractical to legislate based on extreme and hypothetical possibilities — and it’s dangerous to do so in the context of war.

Law enforcement generally should take the lead in anti-terrorism efforts within the United States, but there has to be room for exceptions. Certainly most people would have agreed on September 10 that it would be utterly wrong for the U.S. Air Force to shoot down a U.S. commercial airliner over U.S. soil.  But of course that order was given on September 11, and I’m not aware of any serious person in either party who thinks it was inappropriate.  Fortunately the patriots on Flight 93 made it unnecessary.

(Public domain photos of unmanned, missile-bearing MQ-9 Reaper and of Anwar al-Awlaki from Wikipedia)

* Just this morning CNN reports that conservative GOP Sen. Rob Portman has reversed his position and expressed support for same-sex marriage, his reconsideration prompted by his son coming out as gay. As a marriage equality advocate and a Republican I have mixed feelings about this.  It’s unfortunate that support from prominent Republicans seems to require gay offspring (cf. Cheney, Dick).  But as a practical matter, incremental Republican support is far more important to the cause than incremental Democratic support. So welcome, Senator Portman.

A Dime’s Worth of Balanced Thoughts on SOTU

President Obama seems increasingly divorced from reality on the deficit. First there was his jaw-dropping statement to Speaker Boehner, during the fiscal cliff crisis, that “we don’t have a spending problem.” Now tonight he trots out the usual SOTU laundry list of new initiatives — some of them sensible enough. But he introduces them by saying “nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime.”

Excuse me? Props to the Republican National Committee for being out already with a video that includes tonight’s speech in a litany of video clips of Obama’s dime-saving promises, closing by pointing out that the national debt has increased by 58 trillion dimes since Obama took office.

The Obama-voting Web Goddess, who has to get up early tomorrow, bailed about 10 minutes into the speech, saying it wasn’t very interesting “now that he never has to run for office again.” I said “he’s acting like he never has to compromise with a Republican again, either.” She said “yes, that’s coming through.” Celebrate small victories…

I’m getting tired of Obama’s repeated references to “a balanced approach” to cutting the deficit. Here’s my idea of balance: the fiscal cliff deal imposed tax increases with no spending cuts. Now let’s balance that with a sequester deal of spending cuts with no tax increases.

There will be no sequester deal, of course. The Republicans cannot possibly surrender the only mechanism they have for forcing spending cuts, however clumsy those cuts may be, unless they and the Democrats can agree on alternate cuts of equal size. And there’s no chance of that in the next two weeks. Obama’s White House invented the sequester idea in the summer of 2011, and he and the Democrats have had a year and a half to propose alternate cuts. This president has no intention of cutting anything except defense.

One statement jumped out at me in his discussion of the need for changes to Medicare: “I am open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don’t violate the guarantee of a secure retirement.” Arrrgh! There is no guarantee of a secure retirement! There are entitlement programs in place that provide subsistence-level support, and even that isn’t guaranteed, because the programs are unsustainable. Anyone wanting “a secure retirement” is going to have to either inherit it or save for it.

After my negative feelings about much of the speech, I was surprised to find myself moved by Obama’s closing, when he offered up the examples of the brave police officer, the noble nurse and the 102-year-old woman who endured six hours in line on election night so she could cast her vote.

That’s just the way we’re made.

We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title:

We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

Well put, Mr. President. (Yes, I know that by “certain obligations to one another” he means bigger government, but I don’t have to accept that premise.)

Man oh man, I loves me some Marco Rubio! An excerpt from the official Republican response:

Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.

But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems. That the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough. And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.

Preach it, brother.

To end on a bipartisan note, I’ll paraphrase something David Gergen said on CNN: Who would have thought, as recently as a dozen years ago, that we would one day see a state of the union speech by a black president, followed by a response from a Hispanic senator?

Far From “Post-Partisan,” Obama Is the Most Divisive President in Decades

Click to embiggen

In a post earlier this month, I referred to Obama as “the most divisive, hyper-partisan president since Nixon.”  I was prepared for push-back from Democrats contending that the second George Bush was more divisive.  The Iraq War certainly became divisive over time, but it started with broad bipartisan support.  Of Obama’s biggest initiatives, Obamacare passed without a single Republican vote, and “Porkulus” had only a handful.

Now the nice folks at Gallup have provided polling data documenting just how divisive Obama has been (hat tip: Peter Wehner).  Gallup headlines its article “Obama’s Fourth Year in Office Ties as Most Polarized Ever,” but to me, the most interesting data is in the chart reproduced above, showing the gap between Republican and Democratic approval rates averaged across the presidents’ entire incumbency.  Obama’s average gap thus far is 70 points, on pace to shatter G.W.Bush’s prior record of 61 points.  (Hm… 70 breaks a prior record of 61… where have I heard those numbers before?)  Interestingly, Nixon, who stands out in my mind as a divisive leader, came in only fifth in Gallup’s rankings.

Gallup emphasizes the negative trajectory:

The trend toward increasingly partisan evaluations of presidents over time is also evident in the fact that no president before Ronald Reagan had more than a 41-point party gap in approval ratings, but four of the last five presidents (the exception is George H.W. Bush) have had better-than 50-point divisions in approval ratings by party.

So should we let Obama off the hook because of the historical accident of our highly partisan times?  Naw.  In 2008, Obama held himself up as a post-partisan beacon. But from the very beginning of his presidency, he has seemed intent on creating friction rather than reducing it.  On his third day in office, he froze Republicans out of the Porkulus negotiations by telling them pointedly, “I won.”  He went on to champion a healthcare package that was rammed through Congress in strict party-line votes — including votes scheduled for the middle of the night in the rush to pass the bill before people realized what was in it.

Recently, of course, we’ve had the Fiscal Cliff end-zone dance.  That was followed by the inaugural address — a venue where presidents typically try to unite the country and soothe the passions stirred up by the recent campaign.  But in his second inaugural, Obama turned up the heat. Michael Gerson summarizes the stridency:

Those who oppose this agenda, in Obama’s view, are not a very admirable lot. They evidently don’t want our wives, mothers and daughters to “earn a living equal to their efforts.” They would cause some citizens “to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” They mistake “absolutism for principle” and “substitute spectacle for politics” and “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” They would have people’s “twilight years . . . spent in poverty” and ensure that the parents of disabled children have “nowhere to turn.” They would reserve freedom “for the lucky” and believe that Medicare and Social Security “sap our initiative,” and they see this as “a nation of takers.” They “deny the overwhelming judgment of science” on climate change, don’t want love to be “equal” and apparently contemplate “perpetual war.”

The fruits of Obama’s antagonism will be harvested soon.  With the debt ceiling kicked down the road again, the stage is set, as Newt Gingrich described, for battles over the sequester and the continuing resolution.  The sequester’s draconian automatic spending cuts take effect March 1 unless Congress votes otherwise, and I expect House Republicans will be virtually unanimous in letting the cuts occur, unless they can win cuts of comparable size elsewhere from the Democrats.