Republicans say Obama has been historically divisive. That's very, very revealing.
It's not just deranged — it's projection
There's no doubt that when historians assess the Obama presidency, they will pay a great deal of attention to the deep political divisions within the country, and how those divisions shaped political events. There are racial divisions, class divisions, and, most of all, political divisions. Within Congress, for instance, the parties have been moving apart for the last 40 years, as fewer and fewer moderates get elected and the median of both parties moves toward the edge. But the reality is that while Democrats have moved left, Republicans have been moving right much more sharply — a fact not only established by political science but evident to anyone remotely familiar with Capitol Hill.
Yet Republicans are sure that the fault for all this — long-term trends and recent developments alike — can be laid at the feet of Barack Obama, who is terribly, appallingly, despicably divisive.
If we are divided, it's only because Obama has divided us. "We have not seen such a divisive figure in modern American history" as Barack Obama, Marco Rubio said in 2012. Four years later, his opinion hasn't changed; last week he tweeted, "This president has been the single most divisive political figure this country has had over the last decade." After Obama's recent State of the Union address, Ted Cruz fumed, "He lectures us on civility yet has been one of the most divisive presidents in American history." Or as one Republican congressman said last week, "There probably has not been a more racially-divisive, economic-divisive president in the White House since we had presidents who supported slavery." You won't find too many Republicans who would disagree.
Yet if you spend some time investigating what evidence Republicans offer when they call Obama divisive, what you find is not actually evidence at all, but their own skewed interpretations of events. "He says 'It's my way or the highway' on legislation!", they charge — although he doesn't actually say that. It's just that he has a different legislative agenda than they do. "He crammed ObamaCare down our throats!" — this is a sentence that has been written and spoken a thousand times (just Google it for yourself). Back on Planet Earth, the Affordable Care Act spent over a year going through endless hearings, floor speeches, and debates, and in the end passed the House and Senate and was signed by the president, which you may recall is how a bill becomes a law.
Here's the truth: You might like Barack Obama or you might not; you might think he has been a good president or a bad one. But the idea that blame for the political divisions we confront lies solely or even primarily at his door is positively deranged.
Let's just remind ourselves of how Republicans have treated Obama over his seven years in office, with a few of the greatest hits. You can start right on the day of his inauguration, when congressional Republicans gathered for a dinner at which they decided that rather than seek areas of cooperation with the new president, they would employ a strategy of maximum confrontation and obstruction in order to deny him any legislative victories.
They followed through on this plan. As Mitch McConnell explained proudly in 2010, "Our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny Barack Obama a second term."
At Obama's speech in front of Congress in 2009, a Republican member of the House, acting like a drunk frat boy in a comedy club, decided to heckle him, shouting "You lie!" In the time since, conservative Republicans have regularly acted as though Obama is presumptuous for even acting like the president; they've suggested things like not inviting him to deliver the SOTU, or depriving him of the use of Air Force One.
And then there's the question of how they explain it when Obama does things they don't like. Before you protest that Obama himself sometimes questions his opponents' motives, it's important to realize that when he does so, it's in a narrow way focused on the issue at hand — they really want to cut taxes for the wealthy, they don't think women ought to have access to abortion, they're too eager to start a new war, and so on — to explain their behavior at a particular moment. What he doesn't do, and what he has never done, is accuse them of hating their country. But this is something Republicans have done constantly — not once or twice, not a dozen times or even a hundred, but constantly for seven years.
"I do not believe that the president loves America," said Rudy Giuliani last year, in a statement notable only for being a tad more explicit than the way Republicans usually talk about this question."He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country." Often they will argue that the policies they disagree with are part of a secret plan of Obama's to hamper, diminish, or even destroy the country. Among the things said in the last debate by Marco Rubio — supposedly the reasonable establishment candidate — were that Obama "believes that America is an arrogant global power that needs to be cut down to size," that when elected in 2008 he "didn't want to fix America," that he "doesn't believe in the Constitution," and that he "doesn't believe in the free enterprise system."
In fact, any time you hear a Republican begin a sentence with "Barack Obama believes…" it's an absolute guarantee that what follows will be an utter lie about how Obama doesn't accept the basic values nearly all Americans agree on, that his ideas are alien and threatening. As Newt Gingrich said in 2010, "What if he is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior."
Their voters believe it — indeed, many if not most of them believe that Obama is not American at all. A recent poll by the Democratic firm PPP found that only 29 percent of Republicans would grant that the president is an American citizen. A majority of Republicans also believe he is a Muslim; in other words, that when he goes to church or talks about his Christian beliefs, he's just lying. Polls have shown similar findings for much of his presidency. A poll by the same firm just after the 2012 election showed 49 percent of Republicans saying ACORN stole the election for Obama (which would have been quite a feat, since the organization ceased to exist in 2010).
They don't get these ideas from nowhere. They get them from the leading lights of the GOP, the politicians and media figures who tell them day in and day out that Obama hates them and hates America, and that he is a black nationalist whose policy proposals are about exacting reparations from whites for imaginary racial sins of the past.
If you're even a marginally aware conservative, you've been marinating for seven years in this toxic stew of resentment and hatred. So no one should be surprised that this year Republican voters are angry. But that's Obama's fault too, of course — you might have heard many of them blame the fact that their party has been taken over by a xenophobic blowhard on, you guessed it, Barack Obama.
Yes, it was terribly poor manners of him to make them hate him so, to bring out such ugliness in Republicans. But what choice did they have? And this is the best explanation for their argument that Obama is so terribly divisive: it's projection. They're blaming him for their own shortcomings, their own misdeeds, the political divisions that they have worked so hard to exacerbate.
"It's one of the few regrets of my presidency," Obama said in his State of the Union address this year, "that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide." Maybe, but probably not.
Obama could have invited more Republicans to play golf with him, or invested more time trying to convince them that the Affordable Care Act was a good idea. But would those things — or anything he might have done — really changed how they acted? The party who wouldn't work with him on any legislation, who shut down the government, who vilified him from the moment he took office, who literally made him show his birth certificate to prove he's an American? Not a chance.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article misstated the occasion of one of President Obama's speeches in front of Congress. It has been fixed. We regret the error.