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Define and Conquer

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By JAY COST
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At his press conference last month, President Barack Obama employed a trope he often uses​—​that of a sociologist studying his opposition. Explaining how his agenda has stalled in the Senate, he said:

I can, you know, rally the American people around those .  .  . common-sense solutions. But ultimately, they, themselves, are going to have to say, we want to do the right thing.

And I think there are members certainly in the Senate right now .  .  . who understand that deep down. But they’re worried about their politics. .  .  . Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They’re worried about primaries. .  .  . And we’re going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country.

“Permission structure” is the sort of phrase one might hear in a course in the soft social sciences in Hyde Park. It is classic Obama, harking back to the 2008 Democratic primary when he attributed his struggles in small-town Pennsylvania to voters who had become embittered by their plight, clinging to God, guns, and xenophobia.

The similarities between these statements​—​and countless others from the Obama era​—​are not just in his pose as an analyst, but rather the frame of unreason he places on his opponents. In 2008, Hillary Clinton voters, blinded by their misfortunes, were unable to see how fantastic Obama was. Today, Republican voters nationwide are hamstringing their representatives because they hate the president so deeply. It’s not his fault; his agenda is only doing the right thing.

In a May 3 Q&A with the New York Times’s John Harwood, former Obama strategist David Axelrod put a demographic spin on the president’s analysis. When Harwood asked why gun background checks failed in the Senate, Axelrod responded, “The Republican Party today is, at its core, a mostly Southern, white, old, evangelical party.”

This is, at its core, false. A majority of Romney voters were from outside the Old Confederacy, under 65 years old, and not evangelical. But truth is not the point, nor is the purpose of Obama’s “permission structure” analysis merely to explain why his legislative program has stalled. Instead, it is to define the president’s conservative opposition as out of the mainstream of American society. Obama’s opponents, so the logic goes, are so out to lunch that their opinions should not be taken seriously.

The Obama team employed this approach successfully in 2012. Mitt Romney may have been a family man who gave nearly $2 million to his church in 2010, but by the time Team Obama finished defining him, he was a heartless plutocrat. It worked: The exit polls showed an electorate either split or tilted to the right on the top issues, with Obama defeating Romney because the latter simply was distrusted.

Social scientists call this the mobilization of bias. Marxists refer to it as the establishment of cultural hegemony. More plainly, it is a common trick pulled by Team Obama any time they are in a jam: Define your opponents in such a way that their views are not really taken seriously.

Of course, politicians are always trying this stunt. It makes sense to convince fickle swing voters that the opposition is just no good. Yet Obama’s attempts to mobilize bias stand out, for two reasons.

First is the total commitment to the strategy. Listen to any Obama flack long enough (usually just a matter of minutes), and he or she will reference how extreme the opposition is. Last month when discussing entitlements, Jay Carney said the president was looking for the “common-sense caucus.” And, of course, the media echo this: Last week Politico repeated the “common-sense caucus” phrase to report on the president’s golf game with Republican senators. The result is to paint conservatives as so far outside the mainstream that there is nothing that this president can do with them.

Second is the hypocrisy behind the tactic. This, after all, is the president elected because he promised to bring fundamental change to Washington. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama goes on at length about respecting the views of those who disagree with him, especially on abortion. Instead, we have sustained partisan warfare and a first-ever presidential address to Planned Parenthood, in which the president proclaims that the people whose views he once professed to respect are trying to return America to the 1950s.

His disclaimers lauding sensible centrism aside, Barack Obama is the most partisan president since at least Richard Nixon, and maybe even since Harry Truman. He seems to have a visceral dislike of his opponents, deep in his bones, and his political strategy since the spring of 2008 has been to win by disqualifying them altogether.

This suggests no grand bargain to deal with our looming problems will be forthcoming. There will be no Obama version of Ronald Reagan’s 1986 tax reform or Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reforms. Team Obama is so committed to partisan warfare that such a breakthrough seems improbable. Conservative reformers who desperately want to fix the nation’s broken public policy will just have to wait this hyper-partisan president out.

 

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