Last night, Barack Obama proved why he is the most partisan and divisive president in the modern era. Just as he has throughout most of his term, Obama accused the Republican party and American conservatism of being fundamentally un-American--and though he never came right out and said it, he left the dots there for anybody to connect.
Additionally, Obama endeavored last night to connect this election to the broader picture of American political life. So far, so good.
For 200 years, there has been a struggle between the Hamiltonian view of prosperity and a Jeffersonian counterpart. This election undoubtedly will be a fierce contest between these two worldviews. Leaders like Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, William McKinley, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan have all expounded the idea that the government should encourage and facilitate the growth of private capital, as it is the most progressive force in the modern world, benefiting rich and poor alike. Their counterparts in the Jeffersonian tradition – first Thomas Jefferson himself and Andrew Jackson, later to be followed with the progressive revisions of William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson – believe that the policy needle should be bent directly in the interests of the lower classes, often at the expense of capital development.
These are enduring, legitimate disagreements between the two sides, both of which remain fundamentally American in their outlook. The history of the United States cannot be told without both narratives.
Yet Barack Obama would have none of that last night. He explained the choice in terms of “citizenship” – the idea that we all have responsibilities as well as rights, that there is a sense of shared responsibility that binds us together, and that the government is not about what is done “for” us, but “by” us.
The opposition, on the other hand, wants limited inclusiveness, a laissez-faire policy of economics, the domination of special interests and lobbyists, and a general sense that everybody is on their own.
The first idea, that of “citizenship,” is a quintessentially American idea, and Obama is right to have picked up on these themes from our history. Yet he turned them into partisan tropes last night. After all, both sides agree with these basic premises – the real debate is what comes next. Hamiltonians have one answer and modern progressives have another. The implication of his speech last night was that progressives have a monopoly on these values, and that opposition to their economic and social program is somehow inconsistent with them.
As for this so-called opposition, there has been no ideology at any point throughout American history that trumpets these values. His description is a gross mischaracterization of conservative policy (e.g. “you’re on your own”) and a ridiculous assertion that the political sins of both sides (e.g. special interest politicking) are actually the sins of just one side.
This is one of the great ironies of the Obama administration. He promised to unite us around common themes and values that we all share, but by connecting them so directly to his controversial agenda, he has time and again divided us. He has a Manichean view of American politics – he and his allies embody all of the goodness and light that America represents and his opponents represent nothing but the darkness.
There has been a growing polarization in this country over the last few decades that moves beyond matters of simple partisan support. Increasingly, it seems, one side of this great divide views the other side as somehow illegitimate. No leader since at least Richard Nixon has done more to exacerbate this dangerous tension. By inevitably redrafting shared values as Democratic ones, he feeds the impulse on the left that the right is un-American, he infuriates the right for what are vicious insults, and he leaves those in the middle of the country scratching their heads.
He is the most partisan president in generations.