The Wall Street Journal has a long story today examining the extent of President Obama’s failure with regard to his stated goal of reducing the partisan rancor in Washington. The Journal notes that while Obama promised to “heal the divides,” and other vapid covers for the president’s own extreme partisanship, he has only built a more divided political atmosphere:
Almost four years later, few think those rifts have been healed. One of the central tenets of the 2008 Obama campaign was a promise to usher in an almost post-partisan era in Washington, but by most measures the capital’s divisive tone has grown worse. The rancor has bled into the campaign, which has been marked by unusually negative rhetoric from both sides.
The Journal is quick to dispel the notion that the GOP has been more united in opposition to the Democrats than the president’s party has been against the Republicans: “Last year, House Republicans voted with their leadership 91% of the time on average, tying a record for party-line voting, while Senate Democrats set a record with 92% party unity, according to data compiled by Congressional Quarterly.”
The article offers many reasons for the increased polarization, relying heavily on criticism from the president’s allies and fellow Democrats that paint Obama as dismissive of building relationships with his opposition, preferring to ignore or freeze out those who disagree with him on Capitol Hill, unlike his Democratic and Republican predecessors who were able to pursue their agenda while reaching across the isle and show a willingness to engage with the other side.
But the president’s contribution to the increased polarization seems to be more than just his personal coldness toward those with different ideas. As a piece in the Hill today makes clear, Obama has found ways to escalate the petty verbal skirmishing he claimed to detest:
Bucking protocol, President Obama and the Democrats are planning a full-scale assault on Republicans next week during their convention.
Presidential candidates have traditionally kept a low profile during their opponent’s nominating celebration, but Democrats are throwing those rules out the window in an attempt to spoil Mitt Romney’s coronation as the GOP nominee.
President Obama, Vice President Biden and leading congressional Democrats have all scheduled high-profile events next week to counter-program the Republican gathering in Tampa….
“Traditionally, there was a kind of courtesy extended to the party having the convention — the [other] party would basically stay out of the public eye,” said Ross Baker, political scientist at Rutgers University.
In fairness to Obama, he did promise to change business as usual in Washington, and erasing any semblance of inter-party graciousness certainly qualifies. Now, I don’t think the parties necessarily have to hold their fire just because campaigns have done so in the past. It’s just worth pointing out that Obama isn’t the victim of a status quo—he has made a choice and is pursuing it.
Of course, anyone who is familiar with coverage of the president knows what’s coming next: the explanation for why it can’t possibly be Obama’s fault:
Political historians say the high stakes of this year’s elections — combined with the rise of today’s 24/7 media culture — has forced leaders on both sides of the aisle to get more aggressive.
It’s really a shame that the president was “forced” into breaking precedent and running a nastier campaign than he promised. And of course there’s the unavoidable “both sides” bit even though the article’s point is that the president is doing something no one else has done. I suppose this is what the president was talking about when he complained about “false balance” in the press.