Still Polarizing After All These Years

I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I'll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.

—Barack Obama, State of the Union address, 2016.

Polls confirm that Obama is the most polarizing president in recent memory. There is little middle ground: supporters worship him; detractors in greater number seem to vehemently dislike him. Why then does the president, desperate for some sort of legacy, continue to embrace polarization?

A few hours before delivering that State of the Union, President Obama met with rapper Kendrick Lamar. Obama announced that Lamar’s hit “How Much a Dollar Cost” was his favorite song of 2015. The song comes from the album To Pimp a Butterfly; the album cover shows a crowd of young African-American men massed in front of the White House. In celebratory fashion, all are gripping champagne bottles and hundred-dollar bills; in front of them lies the corpse of a white judge, with two Xs drawn over his closed eyes. So why wouldn't the president’s advisors at least have advised him that such a gratuitous White House sanction might be incongruous with a visual message of racial hatred? Was Obama seeking cultural authenticity, of the sort he seeks by wearing a T-shirt, with his baseball cap on backwards and thumb up?

To play the old "what if" game that is necessary in the bewildering age of Obama: what if President George W. Bush had invited to the White House a controversial country Western singer, known for using the f- and n- words liberally in his music and celebrating attacks on Bureau of Land Management officers? What if Bush had also declared that the singer’s hit song—perhaps a celebration of the Cliven Bundy protest—was the president’s favorite in 2008, from an album whose grotesque cover had a crowd of NASCAR-looking, white redneck youth bunched up with an African-American official dead at their feet? And what if the next day, Bush told the nation that he regretted not being able to bring the country together? Would there have been media calls for Bush’s impeachment?

Tearing the country apart is the unfortunate legacy of Obama—and it will continue in Pavlovian fashion until January 2017. Each unconstitutional executive order circumventing the Congress seems to warrant a stern presidential lecture that Obama once taught constitutional law. At some point, he accepted that a majority of America did not embrace his views and probably would not ratify his agenda.

But by demonizing his successor, playing crude racial politics, trashing the wealthy in the abstract and courting them in the concrete, firing up urban young women by asserting that they were victims of a culture of white (and crude) Christian men prone to sexually assault 20% of the women on campus, mobilizing the poor to ensure their denied fair share of opportunity, and reminding Latinos that border security was tantamount to crude racism, Obama brilliantly cobbled together enough aggrieved victims to provide a 51% national majority. And such outrage successfully fueled record voter turnout. He created that winning paradigm; yet its racial aspect is not transferable to other liberals like Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. And it will remain Obama’s permanent legacy that will ripple throughout the country for years.