Barack Obama: The Polarizer-in-Chief

 

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.