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.

It was Obama who reminded America that its successful people did not build their own businesses, that they should at some point have made enough money, that it was not the time for them to profit, that spreading the wealth around was good for everyone, and on and on. We owe to Obama a now enshrined dislike of the “1%”, who, we are told ad nauseam, do not, even as taxes rise on them, ever pay “their fair share.”

By the same token, Obama introduced the nation (“all across the country”) to his personal pastor, the virulent racist and anti-Semite Rev. Jeremiah Wright (“my pastor, the guy who puts up with me, counsels me, listens to my wife complain about me. He’s a friend and a great leader. Not just in Chicago, but all across the country”), and an array of incendiary figures, from Father Pfleger to Bill Ayers, who still pop up in the public culture. The common theme was take-no-prisoners radicalism, consistent with Obama’s grievances earlier aired in his mythographic memoir. (“There was something about him that made me wary, a little too sure of himself, maybe. And white.” Or, “I never emulate white men and brown men whose fates didn't speak to my own. It was into my father's image, the black man, son of Africa, that I'd packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela.”) All this racial angst from an upper-middle-class prep schooler of mixed heritage, for much of his life known as Barry Soetoro.

Obama himself admirably throughout his campaigns has called for healing and unity—even as he offered quips like “typical white person” and riffs on xenophobic clingers of Pennsylvania and the inability of less aware, superstitious Americans to appreciate his own genius. Supporters in Chicago style were advised by Obama to “get in their faces” and bring “a gun to a knife fight.” Michelle Obama did not offer healing but instead offered up admission that she had never been proud of her country until Obama ran for presidency, that it was a downright mean country that always raised the bar on people like herself.

All that invective was deemed aberrant, artifacts of a campaign that would disappear during sober governance as Obama bound up the nation’s wounds.

Yet for over seven years we have experienced gratuitous racial editorializing amid trumped-up psychodramas, like the silly Skip Gates beer summit, the release of the Black Panthers who had intimidated voters at polls, Attorney General Eric Holder’s serial editorializing about a “nation of cowards” and “my people,” and Obama’s periodic implications of white racism explaining criticism of his lackluster performance. In contrast, Islamic terrorism earned euphemisms like “workplace violence”, “overseas contingency operations,” “largely secular,” and “man-caused disasters.” What if Eric Holder has said of Islam that it was a “culture of cowards” for not addressing Islamic radicalism?

And again, what if a Republican president had advised white supporters to “punish their enemies at the polls”? Or what if a President Bill Clinton had weighed in during the explosive and ongoing racially charged O.J. trial to declare that the second daughter he never had might have looked like Nicole Simpson?

Once Obama set the tone, lots of opportunist groups followed suit. The racist firebrand Al Sharpton went from a pariah to a trusted White House advisor. The birther and racialist Van Jones became an administration advisor on “green jobs.” “White privilege” became a campus gospel, as if the Obama children were forever victimized in a way the offspring of Appalachian coal miners were not. “Hands up, don’t shoot” and Trayvon Martin reminded us that facts, crime statistics about the prevalence of shootings, and empiricism did not matter. Barack Obama would use such racially driven animosity all the way to the UN, where he sermonized about “Ferguson.” In the Obama era, every celebrity and politician who did not take out progressive insurance was a gaffe away from career destruction.

Sometimes the divides turned national, as Obama verbally distanced himself from the traditions and history of his own country. His apology tours, his Cairo speech, his al Arabiya interview, his trite bowing, and his sermonizing and interviews about animosity toward him that was supposedly always race-based reminded Americans of their checkered past—and seemed designed to remind the world that Obama, by such distancing, was not responsible for the mess that is the U.S.

Obama offered Americans no sense of exceptionalism—an unwarranted premise smacked down as no more justified than the Greek or British sense of singularity. Homophobic, sexist, and religiously intolerant Iranians were praised by the administration when they released American soldiers after gratuitously humiliating them; the traitor Bowe Bergdahl, not the Benghazi heroes, earned White House tributes and photo-ops. Such gestures were not so much ideological as petty and designed to irritate.

Opponents of the Iran deal were kindred extremist spirits to Iranian theocrats. Republican opponents were veritable terrorists with bombs strapped to their bodies. Christians hop on their moral “high horses” and needed to be reminded of that chauvinism, endemic since the Crusades and Inquisition, at national prayer breakfasts. Mass shootings were blamed on the foul culture of legal gun owners and the NRA. One cannot disagree with Barack Obama without motives questioned and character besmirched.

Obama’s divisiveness begat the mirror-image angry candidacy of Donald Trump, whose vocabulary was so indebted to Obama’s own—as if “hope and change” had begot “Make America great again.” Obama has lost his party the Congress and most of the state legislatures. He has destroyed the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, and made his media apologists into caricatures of ministry of information megaphones. Obama ushered in an unprecedented any-means-necessary government amorality. Lois Lerner, a politicized IRS and a defunct ICE are its dividends. The secretary of Defense—four so far—is now a cabinet post designed to spawn after-office tell-all indictments of Obama. Scandals are normal now at the VA, IRS, NSA, ATF, EPA, and GSA, and from the AP surveillance and Solyndra to the Benghazi video-did-it talking points. The administration has reduced once-cherished departments such as the Secret Service, State Department, Justice Department and NASA into caricatures of incompetency.

Just as 2016 will be a dangerous year abroad as enemies seek to cash in their chips and consolidate their aggressions, so too divisive groups will surmise that there is one more year left to do try one more time what was impossible in the past and will be perhaps in the near future as well.