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Disagreeing About Who’s Disagreeable

“During election season, I think, the rhetoric flies. And by the way, I’ve been guilty of that. It’s not just them,” President Obama told “60 Minutes,” referring to House Minority Leader John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Part of my promise to the American people when I was elected was to maintain the kind of tone that says we can disagree without being disagreeable. And I think over the course of two years there have been times where I’ve slipped on that commitment.”

There certainly have been. And the comparison to Boehner and McConnell is hardly apt; they have been far more careful in their rhetoric against Obama and Democrats than Obama and Democrats have been against Republicans.

A skeptic will be tempted to assume that Obama’s words are tactical rather than heartfelt — part of his effort to rehabilitate (for political reasons) his shattered reputation for post-partisan, high-minded civility. Those more forgiving of Obama, or perhaps more naïve, will assume he’s learned his lesson and will change his ways.

All we know is what we know: for two years, the president has used hyper-partisan, deeply divisive rhetoric, language that was antithetical to his central campaign commitment. As for what lies ahead: we shall see. Another election season will roll around in 2012, this time with Obama on the ballot. There will be an enormous temptation for him and his lieutenants to dust off the Chicago Way one more time. That will be as good a time as any to judge just how serious Obama is about his newfound commitment to “disagree without being disagreeable.”

Here I suppose it’s worth bearing in mind a modern proverb: “Fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice; shame on me.”


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