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.