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What We Learned from Obama's Rolling Stone Interview

He's a hyper-partisan.

3:00 PM, Sep 30, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Earlier this week, Rolling Stone published an extensive interview with President Obama in which the commander in chief went after his Republican opponents with notable venom. The interview sadly confirms what many of us have long known: President Obama's transformation from post-partisan healer to hyper-partisan attack dog is complete. Why has this happened? Certainly, even those most skeptical of President Obama in January 2009 would have been a little surprised to read an interview that drips with contempt for so many of the president's fellow citizens. Was President Obama always like this, and just hid his partisan side very well during the campaign, or is this a new attitude?

I believe it's new -- at least since he became president.  My thinking is that Obama came into office with an idea in his head of what it means to be a conservative or Republican, and he thought he could work with such people. But his view of the right was not very well formed prior to taking office, and he has been genuinely surprised by GOP opposition.  In response, he has fallen back on the partisan Democratic worldview.

Such worldviews are some of the most enduring characteristics of American politics.  They are basically the stories that each side tells about itself as well as the opposition.  The Republican and Democratic stories are substantively different, but formally quite similar.  For instance:

(a) Each believes the other side has perfidious motivations. 

(b) Each believes that, to the extent that the opposition is acting on principle, they are radical or foolish principles. 

(c) Each believes that the other typically conducts the dirtier campaign.

(d) Each reserves to its own side all the credit for policy successes, and pushes to the opposition all the blame for policy failures.

(e) Each has a Manichean view of American politics and history, with its own side representing the forces of light and the opposition representing the forces of darkness. 

Obviously, not every partisan holds all of these views. They're just general themes that are interwoven into partisan rhetoric. It's been that way for a very long time, actually.  You can see many of them as early as the campaign of 1800, which pitted two authors of the Declaration of Independence against each other. Thomas Jefferson’s allies suggested that John Adams was a crypto-monarchist who was intent on establishing an American aristocracy.  The Adams forces gave as good as they got, claiming that Jefferson was a godless Jacobin leveler who would bring the bloodshed of the French Revolution to the United States.

I’ve never read any scholarly treatment of the partisan worldview, but I have a theory as to why it exists. Parties are long coalitions, which means they need to last over a great length of time and across a great many issues. It would be very difficult for a party to sustain itself if its members in the electorate or the legislature had a habit of supporting the opposition.  If you look at the history of American elections, you’ll see that it is very rare that a party falls below 45 percent of the vote or rises above 55 percent.  That means the other side is always within striking distance, so there is a great need to keep one’s own partisans in line.  How do you do that?  A charitable or sympathetic view of the other side – something to the effect of, “Hey, they’re decent guys, but they’re just wrong on this one…” – is not going to be as effective as, “Those villains!  They mean to undermine our very system of government!”

On the Democratic side, the most forceful expounder of their partisan worldview in the last couple years has been President Obama himself, most recently in the pages of Rolling Stone.

His interview reads like a Greatest Hits of the Democratic Worldview.

--On the stimulus, he was trying to be bipartisan, but the Republicans were playing politics:

The recovery package we shaped was put together on the theory that we shouldn't exclude any ideas on the basis of ideological predispositions, and so a third of the Recovery Act were tax cuts…

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