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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…

I still remember going over to the Republican caucus to meet with them and present our ideas, and to solicit ideas from them before we presented the final package. And on the way over, the caucus essentially released a statement that said, "We're going to all vote 'No' as a caucus." And this was before we'd even had the conversation. At that point, we realized that we weren't going to get the kind of cooperation we'd anticipated.

--Political calculation has motivated the entire Republican party during the economic crisis:

The strategy the Republicans were going to pursue was one of sitting on the sidelines, trying to gum up the works, based on the assumption that given the scope and size of the recovery, the economy probably wouldn't be very good, even in 2010, and that they were better off being able to assign the blame to us than work with us to try to solve the problem.

 -The Republican party represents nothing of value:

Well, on the economic front, their only agenda seems to be tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. If you ask their leadership what their agenda will be going into next year to bring about growth and improve the job numbers out there, what they will say is, "We just want these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, which will cost us $700 billion and which we're not going to pay for."

-The Tea Parties are full of…wait for it…racists!

And then there are probably some aspects of the Tea Party that are a little darker, that have to do with anti-immigrant sentiment or are troubled by what I represent as the president.

-Oh, and they’re being manipulated by the forces of darkness:

There's no doubt that the infrastructure and the financing of the Tea Party come from some very traditional, very powerful, special-interest lobbies. I don't think this is a secret. Dick Armey and FreedomWorks, which was one of the first organizational mechanisms to bring Tea Party folks together, are financed by very conservative industries and forces that are opposed to enforcement of environmental laws, that are opposed to an energy policy that would be different than the fossil-fuel-based approach we've been taking, that don't believe in regulations that protect workers from safety violations in the workplace, that want to make sure that we are not regulating the financial industries in ways that we have.

-And don’t forget FOX News!

Look, as president, I swore to uphold the Constitution, and part of that Constitution is a free press. We've got a tradition in this country of a press that oftentimes is opinionated. The golden age of an objective press was a pretty narrow span of time in our history. Before that, you had folks like Hearst who used their newspapers very intentionally to promote their viewpoints. I think Fox is part of that tradition — it is part of the tradition that has a very clear, undeniable point of view. It's a point of view that I disagree with. It's a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world. But as an economic enterprise, it's been wildly successful. And I suspect that if you ask Mr. Murdoch what his number-one concern is, it's that Fox is very successful.

Presidents have long engaged in the bareknuckle boxing of partisan politics.  Consider, for instance, FDR's famous "Fala Speech."  I wouldn't fault Obama per se for such partisanship, although I think he has been much more direct and personal than he should be.  He's also terribly humorless, which makes it seem like he is whining.  Check out the video of the Fala Speech for an idea of how much more effective a partisan hit can be when it has a light touch.  Also, check out Hillary Clinton's 2008 DNC address for a deftly-crafted shot at the Grand Old Party.

What's peculiar about Obama (beyond the total lack of good cheer) is that he campaigned against the very type of partisan warfare he now engages in.  Remember the Red State/Blue State speech from the 2004 DNC?  It's no easy feat to reconcile that with the accusation that the Tea Parties are stocked with racists.  Similarly, peruse the pages of The Audacity of Hope and try to square his self-righteous paeans to genuine bipartisanship with his suggestion that FOX News is "destructive for the long-term growth of" America.

What explains this transformation in President Obama's attitude?  How did he go from being the candidate who promised post-partisanship to the president who all but accused Mitch McConnell of playing the fiddle while Rome burned?

I can think of four potential explanations.

(1) He’s trying to mobilize the base in advance of the midterm.  Sure, but two points in response: he’s been making these kinds of claims since the early days of his administration, and anyway who reads Rolling Stone magazine?  Enough people to justify such a direct and personal attack from the president of the United States?  I don’t think so.  This explanation has merit, but it is not sufficient.

(2) He really wanted to be post-partisan, but it turns out that the Republicans really ARE that perfidious!  This would be the explanation from somebody who accepts the Democratic worldview.  Watch as I dismiss it out of hand…

(3) The post-partisan thing was just a campaign tactic.  Maybe, but candidate Obama had basically ditched the post-partisan angle once he won the nomination and squared off against John McCain.  It was instead part of his earliest campaign, when he was actually trying to persuade the most committed of Democrats to support him.  Why pitch post-partisanship during a Democratic primary unless you really believed it, at least in some way?

(4) He really thought he was a post-partisan, but actually he’s as partisan as they come.  This is the explanation I’m leaning towards. 

Obama’s residence is in Kenwood, right near the University of Chicago.  I lived there for three years, and my personal experience confirms the conventional wisdom: While it is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse places in the country, it is also one of the most ideologically homogenous.   The neighborhood is part of Ward 4 of the city, which gave John Kerry a whopping 95 percent of the vote in 2004. So did nearby Ward 5, where the University of Chicago is actually located.

The handful of conservatives I knew there were much like myself – they kept their ideological predispositions so close to the vest you’d think they were communists in the 1950s terrified of being called before the HUAC!  When you’re outnumbered by a 20:1 margin, you really have no other choice. 

So, my question is: Where would Obama have encountered a genuinely conservative Republican bloc?  Certainly not in Wards 4 or 5! 

Not in the U.S. Senate, either.  He was there for such a short period of time.  Remember that he started campaigning for president after just two years there, and the planning phase surely pre-dated the formal announcement. 

Not really in the Illinois state senate, either.  State legislatures do not deal with the kinds of divisive issues that animate the national two-party system.  And remember, we are talking about Illinois, which hasn’t voted for a Republican president for 20 years.  The state senate job was a part-time gig as well, which is how he could also lecture at the University of Chicago Law School.  That school is known for being "conservative" as law programs go, but your average law school professor at the U of C doesn't have a heck of a lot in common with your average Bush/Cheney '04 voter!

My guess is that President Obama never really learned what makes conservatives and Republicans tick, as he hadn't been around them long enough to understand them.  He had an idea about what it means to be a conservative, and he wanted to work with those "conservatives," but they don't really exist outside his own mind. 

I think he was genuinely surprised that conservatives would balk at $800 billion in deficit spending, a huge health care bill that created a brand new entitlement, and a vast new bureaucracy and tax structure to regulate the energy sector.  He genuinely thought he could empower legislators like Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, George Miller, and Henry Waxman to draft the most important legislation, and the GOP would be satisfied if it had an opportunity to make changes at the margins. 

Having discovered that Republicans are much more Republican than he thought, he’s fallen back on the safety and comfort of the Democratic worldview: his opponents are either fools being manipulated by the Koch Foundation or perfidious hacks who were content to let the economy sink into the depths for the sake of electoral victory this November.

The president's background is such that he's never had to deal with a conservative Republican coalition on the rise, and that makes me wonder how he will handle the 112th Congress, if the GOP does indeed take control of the House.  Will he be deft like Bill Clinton was in the winter of 1995/96, or will he dig in and, to borrow a phrase, cling to the partisan worldview he so bitterly expounded to Jann Wenner?  Time will tell.

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