In the wake of last week’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, as first responders were tending the victims, police were searching for more culprits, and the nation’s capital was entering lockdown, President Barack Obama gave a speech. This normally would not be news. After all, the president is a loquacious man, and, moreover, the country now expects the president to be therapist-in-chief whenever some sort of disaster, human or natural, occurs.
But Obama’s speech was different from what one would expect. After a few rote words of condolence to the victims, he went after his political opponents with vehemence, charging them with fiscal recklessness and a disregard for the plight of the middle class, and mocking them for wanting to repeal Obamacare. It was a remarkably tone-deaf presentation considering the events of the day. But it was par for the course for this administration, which is one of the most partisan we have seen in the last 60 years.
The American president holds a place within the structure of government quite unlike that of most other national leaders. The Framers envisioned the president as an agent removed from the messy world of politics, and in many respects this idea held sway for more than a generation. It was only under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, for instance, that the precedent was established that the president could veto a bill purely because he viewed it as inadvisable. Previously, presidents vetoed only bills they believed were unconstitutional.
The Jackson era heralded the rise of mass-based political parties competing for the presidency in elections. The politicized presidency had well and truly begun, leaving the president in a peculiar position that persists to this day. On the one hand, he is charged with leading a partisan coalition in pursuit of reelection against an opponent who is mobilizing his own coalition. On the other hand, he holds a job that is in theory above politics. He is enjoined to faithfully execute the laws, promote the national interest, and represent all the people.
Volumes could be written about how presidents have balanced these competing demands. Until well into the 20th century, presidential candidates avoided the appearance of pursuing the nomination; Franklin Roosevelt, in fact, was the first to accept his party’s nomination in an address to its convention. As for campaigning, for most of the 19th century, the candidates avoided it altogether. The first candidate to make a national campaign tour was Republican James G. Blaine in 1884. Otherwise, presidential candidates were entirely aloof or, at most, received groups of well-wishers at their homes. At the same time, winners practiced the infamous spoils system, ousting their predecessor’s appointees from the bureaucracy so as to reward their own supporters with government jobs.
Since the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the president has been an active participant in the national conversation, and the tension between his two roles—leader of the nation and leader of his party—can be traced in presidential rhetoric. In speaking to the nation, will the president be a partisan bull, attacking his opponents to secure his political and policy goals, or will he demur from direct attacks, presumably leaving the dirty rhetorical work to subordinates?
There are, of course, degrees and shades of partisanship that a chief executive can weave into his rhetoric, but the tenures of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower illustrate the extremes. Truman, though he fit well into the clubby atmosphere of the 1940s Senate, was an unabashed partisan in the White House, taking on Republicans and anyone else who stood in his way. He even wrote an infamous letter to the Washington Post music critic who had panned daughter Margaret’s singing at Constitution Hall. Truman wrote, “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!” His attacks on Republicans were often as classy; late in the 1948 presidential campaign Truman likened the (moderate and mild-mannered) GOP nominee to Adolf Hitler.
Eisenhower was Truman’s opposite. He hardly uttered a harsh word about anybody in public while president, and his press conferences often gave the impression that he was a confused old grandpa eager to get back onto the putting green. It was only years later, when his administration’s archives were opened to the public, that the full picture came into view. Eisenhower, in fact, was an able and vigorous chief executive who simply eschewed direct assaults on his political opponents. He was relatively mum on the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, for instance, but behind the scenes he was instrumental in ensuring that McCarthy embarrassed himself at Senate hearings about Communist infiltration of the Army.
Over the last quarter-century, presidents have mimicked Eisenhower or Truman to varying degrees. George H.W. Bush fell toward the Eisenhower end of the scale. Though he certainly had hard-charging partisans doing the messy work for him, Bush tended to eschew the harshest attacks. Perhaps the best tool for presidential communication today is the press conference, and Bush rarely used it to attack his opponents. More often than not, he waved off invitations from the press to get into the mud. When he did attack Democrats, his assaults were mild by comparison with Truman’s harangues. Thus, in early 1992, in response to a question about how another Bush term would differ from the gridlock of his first (and ultimately only) term, Bush replied that the country had to “get more Republicans in [Congress] and more sensible Democrats that will vote for what we want.” That was classic Bush: Even a partisan sentiment was blunted by his endorsement of “sensible Democrats.”
George W. Bush followed much the same strategy as his father, including employing heavy-hitters to rough up his political opponents. Nevertheless, Bush himself rarely took an opportunity to attack Democrats during his first-term press conferences; he took fewer shots than his father, in fact. And, again, his shots were tame compared with Truman’s vitriol. Instead, Bush usually referred to the Democrats only in his calls for Republicans and Democrats to act, or his advocacy of proposals that had won support from both Republicans and Democrats. Statements like these annoy one’s opponents, whose feathers are ruffled when a president cites an apostate in their ranks, but they can’t be described as hardball presidential rhetoric.
Toward the opposite end of the presidential-rhetoric spectrum in the last 25 years is Bill Clinton. Like all presidents, Clinton had a crack political team whose job it was to attack the opposition. Unlike the Bushes, however, Clinton seemed to relish participating himself. Throughout his first term, Clinton took press conferences as an opportunity to go after Republicans, and during the budget standoff of 1995-96 he used his opening statements to drill home partisan points. Clinton’s big complaints about the GOP were usually hypocrisy (they once favored the position they now oppose), obstructionism (the Senate is filibustering a sensible policy), and, after the GOP sweep of 1994, ideological extremism. A common trope running through Clinton’s press conferences during the 104th Congress was that the Republicans were threatening to shut down the government, poison the water, starve little children, and deny senior citizens Medicare, all in service of their goals to cut taxes for the wealthy and radically redefine the role of government in society. Clinton hit most of these points in a December 1995 press conference, when he said in his opening statement:
These Republicans want to force the government to stay closed until I accept their deep and harmful cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, in education, in the environment, and agree to raise taxes on the hardest-pressed working families, all, in part, to pay for their very large tax cut.
Press conferences, while one of the most important forms of presidential communication (outside political campaigns), do not admit of apples-to-apples comparisons across presidents. Chief executives, after all, use press conferences differently. Sometimes when they are in political trouble, they like to call them regularly (as Clinton did during the budget standoff); sometimes they prefer to avoid them when times are tough (as Bush did in the second half of 1992). Moreover, outside of opening statements, much depends on the questions the president is asked.
More readily comparable are the weekly presidential addresses that have been a fixture since the Reagan days. While less important from a political perspective, these brief broadcasts give the president free rein to say whatever he likes, unburdened by journalists’ questions, so they can offer clues to the president’s general messaging strategy. The American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara has catalogued all such addresses since the start of Clinton’s tenure, and the results confirm what the press conferences suggest. During his first term, George W. Bush attacked Democrats directly only 3 times in his radio addresses, while Clinton engaged in such attacks 30 times.
Moreover, there are qualitative differences between the two presidents’ rhetoric. About the worst thing Bush ever said of Democrats during an address was this complaint in February 2003:
It is my responsibility to submit judicial nominations. It is the Senate’s responsibility to conduct prompt hearings and an up-or-down floor vote on all judicial nominees. Yet a handful of Democratic senators, for partisan reasons, are attempting to prevent any vote at all on highly qualified nominees.
In comparison, Clinton often resorted to the “Mediscare” attack. In late 1995, he argued:
The Republicans say they support Medicare. They say they just want to reform it. But just this week we learned that the Senate majority leader is bragging that he opposed Medicare from the beginning, and the speaker of the House admitted that his goal is to have Medicare, quote, “wither on the vine.” When they say those things, it’s clear that the Republicans come not to praise Medicare but to bury it.
When Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, there was wide anticipation that the new president would avoid the Trumanesque model of total partisan warfare. The hope, in fact, was based on his campaigns against Hillary Clinton and John McCain. In both, Obama bemoaned not just the last 8 years, but the last 20 years. What was needed, he insisted, was someone who could move beyond the old partisan games to forge alliances on Capitol Hill. In his second book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama had written:
Genuine bipartisanship . . . assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficits. This in turn assumes the majority will be constrained—by an exacting press corps and ultimately an informed electorate—to negotiate in good faith.
Having been handed the largest congressional majority any Democratic president had enjoyed since FDR, Obama could reasonably be expected to exercise the very restraint he had praised.
On the rhetorical level, at least, that expectation turned out to be flat wrong. Obama has been decidedly unrestrained. Following Clinton and Truman, Obama has gone after Republicans with vehemence. He has resurrected all of the old categories of Republican perfidy—hypocrisy, obstructionism, extremism—and added another to the Democratic canon: the idea that Republicans are mere tools of special interests. During the budget crisis of 2011, Obama intoned:
Now, let me acknowledge what everybody understands: It is hard to do a big package. My Republican friends have said that they’re not willing to do revenues, and they have repeated that on several occasions.
My hope, though, is that they’re listening not just to lobbyists or special interests here in Washington, but they’re also listening to the American people. Because it turns out poll after poll, many done by your organizations, shows that it’s not just Democrats who think we need to take a balanced approach; it’s Republicans as well.
It is more than a little ironic that Obama—who has abundantly demonstrated his willingness to offer special deals to interest groups that are ready to deal back—would open this line of attack. But then presidential rhetoric has never really been about consistency.
For whatever reason, Obama’s attacks on Republicans at press conferences have rarely been as colorful as Clinton’s were. While exceedingly partisan, Obama’s opening statements are caveat-laden, overlong expositions that simply do not have the old partisan zing perfected by Truman and Clinton. Perhaps it has something to do with their political backgrounds. It is little wonder that Clinton, a populist Democrat from Arkansas, was so adept at partisan hardball in the impromptu setting of the press conference. Obama, meanwhile, a former law lecturer at the University of Chicago and state senator from the nerdy Chicago enclave of Hyde Park, sounds more like a lawyer with little courtroom experience.
It is in his weekly addresses, however, that Obama has proven himself to be a true partisan warrior. During his first term, Obama attacked Republicans directly in 44 weekly addresses, nearly one-quarter of his entire output. What makes this number even more striking is that, from the time of Senator Arlen Specter’s party flip in April 2009 to Scott Brown’s arrival in the Senate from Massachusetts in February 2010, Republicans were wholly powerless to stop the president on Capitol Hill. So through most of 2009, attacking Republicans was pointless (although Obama did manage a dig at them in December that year, when he chided House Republicans for currying favor with special interests to stymie the Consumer Financial Protection Agency).
It is in his weekly addresses that Obama most resembles the Clinton of the press conferences. There is the classic “Mediscare” attack (from August 14, 2010):
Republican leaders in Congress don’t seem to have learned any lessons from the past few years. They’re pushing to make privatizing Social Security a key part of their legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall. It’s right up there on their to-do list with repealing some of the Medicare benefits and reforms that are adding at least a dozen years to the fiscal health of Medicare, the single longest extension in history.
There are complaints about sticking it to poor children and the infirm (from April 16, 2011):
It’s a vision that says at a time when other nations are hustling to outcompete us for the jobs and businesses of tomorrow, we have to make drastic cuts in education, infrastructure, and clean energy, the very investments we need to win that competition and get those good jobs.
It’s a vision that says in order to reduce the deficit, we have to end Medicare as we know it and make cuts to Medicaid that would leave millions of seniors, poor children, and Americans with disabilities without the care they need.
There is the old saw that Republicans are only out to benefit the wealthy (from July 14, 2012):
One path, pushed by Republicans in Congress and their nominee for president, says that the best way to create prosperity is to let it trickle down from the top. They believe that if we spend trillions more on tax cuts for the wealthy, it’ll somehow create jobs, even if we have to pay for it by gutting education and training and by raising middle-class taxes.
And, of course, there is the claim that Republicans like dirty air and water (from September 18, 2010):
We’ve rolled back tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. And we’ve restored enforcement of commonsense rules to protect clean air and clean water. In other words, we’ve refused to go along with business as usual.
Now the special interests want to take Congress back and return to the days when lobbyists wrote the laws. And a partisan minority in Congress is hoping their defense of these special interests and the status quo will be rewarded with a flood of negative ads against their opponents.
What is amazing about all of this is how very old it is. Obama promised to turn the page once and for all, but he has used the very same partisan attacks perfected by Harry Truman some 65 years ago. Indeed, one could argue that the forerunner of these slash-and-burn tactics was William Jennings Bryan, who said all the way back in 1896:
There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.
One could be forgiven for believing that this came from Barack Obama’s latest weekly address!
So there it is, the tension within the American presidency. As the leader of a political party, he knows he will never win reelection unanimously, so he must rally one subset of the population against another subset. In days of yore, presidents wielded the patronage power for this purpose; today, rhetoric is one substitute. At the same time, as the representative of all the people, the president is charged with faithfully executing the laws and empowered to defend the national interest in foreign affairs. Different presidents have handled the tension in different ways, and Obama is not the first to choose the more partisan path. Perhaps what makes him extraordinary is the lengths he went to during his campaigns of 2007 and 2008 to promise that he would not be a partisan brawler.
In the final analysis, it is hard to draw a straight line from rhetorical strategy to political or policy success. Yet dangers do seem to lie at the extremes. George H.W. Bush was probably too kind to the Democrats during his tenure and paid a price for it, with a primary challenge from Pat Buchanan and a dispirited Republican electorate. Similarly, Eisenhower never made a full-throated case for Republican control of government and, despite his massive popularity, faced Democratic majorities in Congress after 1955 that stopped or adulterated most of his legislative initiatives. On the other hand, while Bill Clinton was as tough a partisan brawler as one will ever find, he nevertheless cut a series of deals with the 104th Congress, the most important of which was welfare reform. Clinton moved more toward the Republicans than vice versa, even as he was representing himself as the sole defender against GOP atavism!
Clinton’s policy successes notwithstanding, the danger of the bare-knuckle approach is that it can erode trust. Bipartisan accomplishments often hinge on the promise that a breakthrough will be a win-win. But how can a legislator believe that a highly partisan president will spread the credit around? And even under Clinton, many of the deals congressional Republicans cut with the president came only after they recognized that they were losing the public relations battle. In other words, Clinton’s victories came in large part because he had outboxed his opponents.
The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has clearly failed to do that. While Barack Obama won reelection last year, he did so with a diminished share of the votes, and Republicans were returned to Congress in roughly the same numbers as before. This year, Republicans’ battles with the White House have done at least as much damage to Obama as to Republicans. So, without fear of the president, what incentive do his opponents have to deal with him? Certainly, there is no trust, no expectation that both sides would walk away satisfied from any agreement.
So it goes in the age of Obama. Far from being a post-partisan presidency, this has been a hyperpartisan one, ranking up there with the most polarizing in the postwar era.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.