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Uncommonly Partisan

The consistently divisive rhetoric of President Obama

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By JAY COST
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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. 

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