Barack Obama ran a healing campaign. He offered sonorous themes of a country no longer to be divided by blue-state/red-state animosities, by race, by income — or by much of anything.
In turn, we were to suspend disbelief over his past hardball campaigns for the state senate and sthe U.S. Senate. The young, charismatic, post-racial, post-political inheritor of Camelot could not really have compiled the most partisan record in the Senate. We were to think away his tough-guy Chicago-style associates. His pastor at the time, the venomous Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was an aberration. And when candidate Obama occasionally derided George W. Bush, it was considered rough, but deserved.
Alas, the first nine months of this administration have proven the most polarizing in memory. Polls show a 61 percent partisan gap. Obama is now rated as the most divisive first-year president in the past four decades. As this week’s elections suggest, even in liberal New Jersey and moderate Virginia, voters are becoming tired of being caricatured as either saints or sinners, depending on the degree to which they embrace the Obama vision. No wonder. As a Manichean, he increasingly envisions the world as “us” versus “them.”
Who are “they,” who have raised the bar on everyone else?
First, of course, “they” are the rich in perpetual war against the poor. “They” made out like bandits under Bush, so “they” should have their federal income taxes raised to make “them” “pay their fair share” in “patriotic” fashion. Forget that currently about 5 percent of taxpayers shoulders nearly half the federal income-tax burden. It matters little that a greater percentage of households (well over 40 percent) now pays no federal income tax whatsoever.
On the Obamist reading, the record federal deficits are not due to waste and fraud. Nor are unnecessary government spending and excessive entitlements the culprits. A bankrupt Medicare and soon-to-be-bankrupt Social Security, congressional pork-barrel projects, and interest due on past profligate spending did not cause our budget crisis. Instead, the red ink is almost entirely due to a shortage of revenue, and brought on by the greedy who have the capacity, but not the caring, to fork over more.
“They” should be targeted as well by the states, many of which have rightly raised their tax rates — in California, to over 10 percent. “They” are easily able to pay a new health-care surcharge, the greedy few lending a helping hand to the virtuous many. “They” surely have enough to pay the full 15.3 percent FICA tax on most of their income over the current $106,000 cap. Add it up, and soon state, federal, FICA, property, and sales taxes will reach 60 to 70 percent of “their” incomes.
But that is a tolerable bite since income is now seen as inherently arbitrary and rigged. How compensation is calibrated is somehow illegitimate in the first place — and thus it cannot properly belong entirely to the earner. At least, I think that conjecture reflects the president’s own past unguarded references concerning the need for “redistributive” change and his exhortations to “spread the wealth.”
Who exactly are “they”? The selfish Chamber of Commerce. The profit-driven doctors who cut out tonsils unnecessarily. The rapacious insurance companies, which jack up health-care costs. Wall Street, of course, which ruined the economy. Those who do not have overdue accounts on their credit cards, who pay their taxes in full, and who meet their mortgage payments do so not because they live by a particular code and forgo some discretionary spending, but only because “they” somehow have more income than others.
“They,” however, are not always quite defined by income alone. Barack Obama himself lived in a spacious home. His populist advisers David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel have used their insider contacts to make millions. So has a surprising number of other high-ranking administration officials, from Larry Summers to Timothy Geithner. Populist Obama supporters Charles Rangel and Chris Dodd both found sweetheart deals to finagle vacation homes. Compliance with the tax code is not a characteristic of an Obama cabinet appointee, or of a liberal congressman who lobbies for higher tax rates. “They,” in other words, means every American who makes over $250,000 (or is it $200,000? or really $150,000?) — but does not support Barack Obama.
In this world of “them” versus “us,” an individual is not so responsible for his own circumstances. All those without health insurance, but who have money for cell phones or plasma televisions, nonetheless face a veritable “murder” by the neglect of the affluent. Illegal aliens, who choose to send $50 billion annually back to Latin America, are forced to live in the shadows without adequate federal entitlements. The young over 23, who choose to spend some of their disposable income on cars, plasma TVs, or cell phones, obviously don’t have a dime for a catastrophic insurance plan. In this new world, wealth and poverty are judged in relative fashion — to be impoverished is not to have as much as “they.”
A second binary is the vicious and cruel political opposition. Fox News is not a news organization at all: It is “opinion journalism” like “talk radio” — and thus to be ostracized at all costs. The White House communications director said nicer things about mass-murdering Chairman Mao than anyone in the administration has said about Rush Limbaugh. To Barack Obama, the opposition “does what they’re told.” To his former green czar, Republicans are “a——s.” If you rally or protest, you become the mob, Nazi-like and astroturf-like. Town-hall protesters are to be derided by the media with the graphic sexual slur “teabaggers.”
Abroad, good things happen because of Obama’s inspiration, bad things are the residue of George W. Bush. To be an Obama diplomat is to start a speech by trashing the prior president of the United States. There is no sense of decades of a unified foreign policy, and no memory that Democrats during the Bush administration authorized everything from two wars to the Patriot Act.
Unfortunately, race is also an Obama-administration binary. The tell-tale symptoms of the campaign have now grown into a clear pathology. In a moment, white police can become stereotypers who act “stupidly.” America suddenly is “cowardly” on matters of race. Black congressmen or state governors who are unhappy with their political fortunes take their cue from the Obama administration and cite “racism” for their troubles.
If protesters at town halls are not proportionally representative in racial terms, they are of course “racists.” In the world of Obama favorite Van Jones, whites steer pollution into black communities, and white suburban kids are more likely than black urban kids to commit mass murders. Valerie Jarrett, arguably one of the most powerful women in the world by virtue of her access to the president of the United States, in her war against Fox News resorts to the coded civil-rights trope of “speaking truth to power.” Apparently, in this cosmic struggle, by virtue of her race and her anointed vision she has perpetual truth on her side, while others, less saintly, have perpetual power, which is to be assailed.
When 97 percent of African-American voters preferred Obama to a liberal Hillary Clinton in the primaries, that does not suggest racialism, but a modest majority of whites voting for John McCain likely does.
Racism, cited during the last weeks of the campaign as the only reason why an otherwise shoo-in Obama might lose, now often explains Obama’s falling popularity. Indeed, to the degree that Barack Obama gets what he wishes, the country is deemed to be on racial probation; to the degree he does not, it is considered recidivist and back to Jim Crow days.
But race, wealth, and politics are not the only good-guy/bad-guy dichotomies. Obama has somehow managed to inject divides even into the most mundane things we do. Buy a car? Purchasing a Ford now means something politically different from buying a Chevy. Get an NEA grant? If so, you are part of the solution; if not, you’re not. If you’re behind the DMV counter wearing a purple union T-shirt, you’re a progressive and for the “people” — even if you care little about the long lines of waiting customers. An oilman who finds precious natural gas to fuel an energy-starving America is not of the same moral sort as a “green” visionary who garners federal subsidies for an inefficient solar-panel project.
One America, now out of power, did all sorts of terrible things that require atonement and apology overseas; another America, now in power, did all sorts of good things that explain our current status and influence. In the age of Obama’s apologetics, innocence would require a plea like, “But my family was from the North. But I wasn’t alive in August 1945. But my grandmother was 1/16 Cherokee. But I voted for Al Gore and John Kerry.”
As we saw in the elections in purple state Virginia and blue state New Jersey, the problem with Obama’s various binaries is that they are beginning to overlap. In short, those finding themselves on the bad “them” side of the equation are growing in number, while the anointed “us” shrinks.
– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.