In his book Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, historian Rick Perlstein argues the seeds of today's polarized politics were sown during the 1960s and 1970s. He traces the fault lines of contemporary controversies such as marriage, abortion, the environment, the role of government and even the very terms of our national self-image, back to this earlier period.
President Nixon stepped into those stormy times and helped define a language of politics still used today--a "silent majority" of middle-class, conservative-leaning, middle-American "people of faith," versus a more cosmopolitan, secular, and liberal-leaning "live and let live" crowd.
Perlstein's formulation may be oversimplified, but President Barack Obama pledged to end it. He promised "change" and to stop the polarized politics of the past. He asserted America was on the brink of death by division. We needed to come together. But now President Obama stands at the edge of the same abyss. And many believe he has fallen into the same swamp of bitterness and polarization he promised to end. Recent poll trends support this conclusion.
Last week Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee beckoned the president to step back from the precipice. In a Senate floor speech, he urged Obama to cool it when it comes to assailing those who disagree with the White House. Alexander, not known as a vituperative partisan, warned the president risked squandering an opportunity to "work together on the truly presidential issues--creating jobs, reducing health care costs, reducing the debt, creating clean energy."
Alexander lamented that Mr. Obama's growing list of public spats with banking executives, the insurance industry, the Chamber of Commerce, and Fox News reminded him of the Nixon Administration (Alexander worked there until 1970), where White House Counsel John Dean and his colleagues schemed about ways to "use the available Federal machinery to screw our political enemies."
The senator sees troubling parallels between Nixonland and Obamaland: "I have an uneasy feeling only 10 months into this new administration that we are beginning to see the symptoms of this same kind of animus developing in the Obama administration."
The transition from campaigning to governing has not been kind to President Obama. As a candidate he spoke of hope, change and ending the polarization of the past; he promised to bring people together; he pledged a new style of civil political engagement; he sought to lift us as a people above surly partisan warfare.
As president, he sucked the veracity from these hopes. Maybe this was the plan all along. Politicians often say one thing and do another. Or perhaps, he succumbed to inexorable forces and patterns that swallow every idealistic elected official trying to navigate the Washington swamp. Whatever the reason, Obama has fallen short of those lofty aspirations.
After ten months in office a clear pattern has emerged. Instead of hope and change, it's blame and attack. Obama rarely gives a speech about a pressing national problem--the economy, health care, the budget deficit--without blaming Republicans or former president George W. Bush. For many Americans it's getting old. It makes the president look small and petty. Does he want America's respect or its pity?
Attack is the other side of this strategy. Playing Chicago-style politics comes naturally to this White House, populated with a cadre of former Obama for president staffers and others steeped in the tactics of the permanent campaign. And they don't merely assault an enemies list. "We routinely hear about phone calls from the president's staff to congressional Democrats expressing White House dissatisfaction if someone says anything out of line with Obama's policies," a senior congressional aide told me.
The gap between the president's campaign rhetoric compared to his governing style creates a harsh cognitive dissonance and a toll in the polls. Gallup reported last week that Obama suffered the largest decline in approval numbers from the second to third quarter of his first year of any president in modern history. And the slide will likely persist as the White House continues to force its vision of change on a country that lacks consensus in many areas.
Perlstein ends his book with a question: How did Nixonland end? His answer: "It has not ended yet." Life in Obamaland supports his thesis.
Gary Andres is vice chairman of research at Dutko Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.