It has become a familiar refrain: conservatives reach for “wedge” (read: social) issues in presidential campaigns in order to distract and divide voters. That narrative has always been suspect. But I wonder when it will dawn on political reporters and commentators that it is Barack Obama who is compulsively reaching for “wedge” issues in the hopes of dividing Americans against one another.
In just the last few weeks, for example, the president has weighed in on the Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke controversy, the membership policies of Augusta National Golf Club, the Trayvon Martin shooting, as well as altering the status quo when it comes to requiring Catholic hospitals, charities and universities to provide insurance coverage that includes contraceptives and abortifacients, in violation of their conscience and creed.
On the first three issues, Obama is acting more like Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell than president. And if you take the four issues together, it’s clear what’s occurring. Obama cannot defend his record and has no compelling second term agenda; his goal is to toss dust in the wind, to draw attention away from the economy and the increasing disorder in the world so that his allies can portray the GOP as engaged in a “war on women.”
This tactic is an important concession of sorts. Barack Obama has shown he can’t govern and won’t even try. But he does know how to campaign. It’s the one thing he seems to relish and has (along with community organizing) shown some skill at. The fact that Obama is campaigning in 2012 in precisely the opposite manner he portrayed himself in 2008 isn’t lost on anyone – including the RNC (see this effective new ad).
The president has gone from being a healer of the breach to the divider-in-chief. Hope and change has given way to slash-and-burn. On the campaign trail he’s now referring to Republicans as members of the “flat earth society” and the House GOP budget as an example of “Social Darwinism.” (If Obama is going to attack Republicans, at least he could be creatively vicious instead of banal and mean-spirited.) To have a president engage in these tactics with such relish, and to do so this early in the campaign cycle, will do significant damage to our political culture. But it’s clear to any detached observer that it doesn’t matter to Obama. After all, he has an election to win, power to keep, and an opponent to destroy.