Presidential inaugurations are opportunities for the nation to come together after a fractious campaign. Among the best in that regard was Bill Clinton's first, in which he opened his remarks by thanking his predecessor and vanquished opponent, George H. W. Bush, for a long career of service to his country. No wonder they became friends thereafter. Unsurprisingly, at least in retrospect, Barack Obama's first presidential moment was much less than Clinton's, as were the four years that followed.
George W. Bush was also a divisive president, but unlike Obama he did not intend to be. Rather, it was Bush's seeming obliviousness - encapsulated by the "a village in Texas is missing its idiot" bumper sticker on every Prius in the country - that exacerbated the policy disagreements and drove many Democrats to assassination fantasies. Nothing turns a disagreement into wild-eyed fury faster than feeling like the other side isn't even listening.
By contrast, Obama's divisiveness is a conscious tactic reflective of his belief system; that is, that there are good and bad people in America, and the bad ones have used money and fear to hoodwink the not-so-bright good ones, starting with the ones clinging to their guns and religion. So he points fingers, with a purpose.
Bad things cannot happen to good people without someone else being to blame, whether it is an unaffordable mortgage or pavement-cracking obesity. He believes that under the weight of global trade and contemporary capitalism, the American dream has become little more than a fantasy perpetuated by the beneficiaries of a rigged game. The reason he shows so little concern about the tax rates and regulations affecting small businesses is that he thinks their role in the economy is as exaggerated as their definition of the American dream is outdated. He meant every word of "you didn't build that."
And if you wonder how Obama came to be trusted by so few Republicans in Congress, go back to the moment his presidency officially shifted into reelection mode. That date was April 13, 2010, in speech at George Washington University, about 15 months after he had accused the Supreme Court members attending his State of the Union address of being complicit in the corruption of American government.
As usual, the president began his remarks at GWU by talking about shared sacrifice and an acknowledgement that keeping entitlements as they are now is impossible (for a moment, the nation had hope). He even faintly praised the man sitting right in front of him in the audience, House budget leader Paul Ryan, saying, "Now, to their credit, one vision [of necessary budget reforms] has been presented." He paused only briefly, however, before proceeding to make one of the most disingenuous and divisive orations ever delivered by a sitting president.
He painted Ryan and his party as fundamentally cruel people who argue that we "can't afford" money for infrastructure, education, Medicare, and Medicaid. Slowing demonstrably-unsustainable growth suddenly became zeroing out. Structural reforms became abandonment. He even accused them of "taking away college scholarships" and telling "families who have children with disabilities that they would have to fend for themselves." And then, after several more minutes of hyperbolic insults, he closed his remarks by saying, "I know we can come together."
Really? Wouldn't it be doing God's work to simply shoot the heartless bastards, right now?
When an old friend of mine interviewed John Boehner last week, the speaker told him how corrosive it is that the president cannot seem to open his mouth without slandering his opponents and blaming them, and only them, for a problem. "I'm the guy who put revenues on the table the day after the election," said Boehner, "and I'm the guy... who agreed to let rates go up on dividends and capital gains as a way of trying to move them [the White House] into a deal, but we could never get him [Obama] to step up." Unlike Boehner, Obama "doesn't even want to try" to sell compromise to his party.
It seems impossible for this president to say, "reasonable people may disagree" and mean it. His most recent conceit that, "the American people agree with me" on growing the federal government and raising taxes belies the fact that 47 percent of them did not, or that the 51 percent who did were, unsurprisingly, supporting tax increases on someone other than themselves. By injecting his most venomous campaign rhetoric into serious budget deliberations, he reminds us of how recently removed he is from Chicago, the only ad hominem hotbed capable of besting Capitol Hill when it comes to scorching the earth and, in this case, any possibility of national reconciliation.
Steve Steckler is chairman of Infrastructure Management Group, Inc. He has managed many of the largest public-private partnership transactions in the U.S., and is a frequent author, speaker and advisor to US and international governments on fiscal management and regulatory policy.
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