Nothing brings a nation together like crisis. In the days after 9/11, President Bush saw his approval ratings go up into the 90s. After the Timothy McVeigh attacks in Oklahoma City, Clinton got a precipitous bump in the polls. George H.W. Bush’s approval rating skyrocketed when we went to war in Iraq to liberate Kuwait.
President Obama has not experienced such a polling bump as a result of ISIS’ campaign of terror across the West. In fact, look what has happened to Obama’s approval ratings since the Paris attacks:
What’s the difference? Well, Obama’s defender will claim that this is merely a result of Republican intractability towards Obama no matter what, or (of course) of racism. By playing either of these two cards, they are free to avoid any sort of soul searching for why Obama’s approval ratings have actually gone down during a crisis that has (at least partly) affected American soil.
If Obama were a good politician, or one who cared what the American people thought or wanted, he might look at how George W. Bush handled the days after 9/11, or how Clinton handled the Oklahoma City Bombing. Both studiously avoided partisan attacks on their political enemies. Both avoided the temptation to use the tragedy to push any sort of politically divisive legislation, at least in the immediate weeks afterwards.
Both men understood that when America is under attack, the first thing to do is to get in front of some TV cameras and say, with no varnish or agenda, that we are all Americans, dammit, and we are going to find the people responsible and kick their asses, full stop.
Obama, on the other hand, was playing wedge politics literally before the bodies had even cooled in San Bernardino. As Josh Kraushaar noted at National Journal, Obama has consistently been more of a polarizer-in-chief than he has been a commander in chief:
But instead of acting as a commander in chief, Obama has become a polarizer in chief. Immediately after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, both of which provided him an opportunity to reset his antiterrorism policies, he instead chose to find “wedge” issues that he could use to attack Republicans. After he was hounded by the press over downplaying the ISIS threat, he nimbly switched the subject to the GOP’s heartlessness on the question of taking in Syrian refugees, a counterpunch that drew substantial press coverage. In the immediate aftermath of the San Bernardino attacks, he downplayed the terrorist connections and amplified his call for additional gun control. Following the president’s lead, Senate Democrats then tried to put Republicans on the defensive over their fidelity to gun rights by voting to ban people on the no-fly list from purchasing guns. Agree or disagree with those policies, but both were a deliberate distraction from the urgent issue at hand—how to combat ISIS, at home and abroad.
These tactics are consistent with the White House’s view on how Democrats should campaign to win elections: mobilize Obama’s liberal coalition, and highlight the GOP’s most extreme voices to win over persuadable voters. Given Donald Trump’s increasingly inflammatory pronouncements, it’s easy to understand the savvy—and cynical—strategy behind the Democrats’ approach. (Trump’s latest scheme, which calls for the United States to bar Muslims from entering the country, is an example of how polarization can fuel even-more-extreme polarization.)
But in this instance, the problem is that a majority of voters view Obama’s intransigence on ISIS as an extreme position. If the public doesn’t trust the president to keep the country safe, no amount of political jujitsu can hide that fundamental vulnerability. Core Democratic issues such as immigration, gun control, and climate change will be secondary to national security if voters remain insecure heading into 2016.
At this point, it’s difficult to say whether Obama knows how to unite the country, because the honest truth is that he’s never even tried. His interest in what’s best for America is decidedly second to his perceived interest in what’s best for the Democratic party.
As a result, all of America loses.