Politics & Policy

Obama’s New Take on Partisanship

President Obama's worst nightmare? A conservative Senator Obama.

One of President Obama’s strangest complaints is that there are too many in Congress who act, well, like former senator Obama.

In his recent speech on the question of comprehensive immigration reform, President Obama once again blasted Republican political opportunism that opposes his initiatives for partisan, rather than principled, reasons. Indeed, Obama regularly criticizes as disingenuous those conservative politicos in Congress who mindlessly thwart his every move on health care, foreign policy, cap-and-trade, illegal immigration — you name it.

Consider the present confirmation examination of Obama nominee Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Clearly Obama thinks that she is a centrist whose record as a law-school dean in unimpeachable. A no vote, in his view, would only reveal rank partisanship — in the style of Sen. Barack Obama.

Remember, he not only opposed Justice Alito, but also joined with other senators to try to filibuster the nomination in hopes that Alito would not be accorded a simple up-or-down vote. (Note in passing that President Obama in the last year has repeatedly criticized the filibuster as partisan and obstructionist in diminishing the influence of the Democratic majority in the Senate.) In the case of his no vote against Justice Roberts, Senator Obama admitted that Roberts had shown the necessary “adherence to legal precedent and rules of statutory or constitutional construction.” But there was a problem regarding “empathy.” Roberts, you see, did not show the sort of empathy that Obama thought Supreme Court justices should embrace. Yet imagine if a Republican senator now said of Elena Kagan that he believed she would follow the law, but should nevertheless be rejected because she had not shown enough “empathy” toward conservative interests.

President Obama is now calling for a surge in troops into Afghanistan to restore an unstable front, to be overseen by Gen. David Petraeus. He expects both Congress and the public to rally around that common effort. Both should. But Senator Obama once grilled the same Gen. David Petraeus and ridiculed his notion of surging into Iraq at a time when the military desperately needed public support to salvage the situation there. Senator Obama gave a speech rather than asked questions, as was expected in Senate hearings, and suggested that Petraeus had “punted” on telling the truth about the broader strategy in Iraq, and therefore had made it difficult to grant his request for more troops on a bipartisan basis.

President Obama now hopes that when senators examine the Petraeus appointment and the administration’s request to surge into Afghanistan, they will not act in partisan fashion, in the manner of Senator Obama.

In January President Obama blasted the Supreme Court’s reversal of elements of the McCain-Feingold act barring certain types of private political contributions. He saw it as an attack on the public financing of presidential campaigns and encouragement for big money to influence political decision-making: “It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health-insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

It was just two years ago that Senator Obama became the first presidential candidate since public financing was instituted to renounce such funding in the presidential general election, and he went on to amass a record amount of corporate cash — becoming both Goldman Sachs’s and BP’s largest recipient of money.

In his recent immigration speech, President Obama lamented, “Now, under the pressures of partisanship and election-year politics, many of the eleven Republican senators who voted for reform in the past have now backed away from their previous support.”

Yet Obama himself in 2007 did not quite go along with the bipartisan effort by Senator Kennedy and President Bush to enact the same comprehensive immigration reform. Instead, he held out for provisions that would help to doom the bipartisan effort to enact almost the identical legislation that President Obama has now taken up.

Nothing was more difficult to enact than controversial legislation aimed at preventing another 9/11 and launching an offensive against the Taliban and their Islamic terrorist allies in Afghanistan. Yet here is what Barack Obama had to say — first as a state legislator and then as a U.S. senator — about such anti-terrorism protocols. Renditions: “shipping away prisoners in the dead of night.” Military tribunals: “a flawed military commission system that has failed to convict anyone of a terrorist act.” Guantanamo Bay: “a tremendous recruiting tool for al-Qaeda.” Preventive detention: “detaining thousands without charge or trial.” The surge of troops into Iraq: “not working.” The Patriot Act: “shoddy and dangerous.”

President Obama has tripled the annual number of targeted assassinations from Predator drones in the Pakistani borderlands. Yet here is how candidate Obama characterized airborne attacks under the Bush administration, when they were far less frequent: “We’ve got to get the job done there and that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there.”

If a Republican senator behaved today as Senator Obama did then, he would hammer away at the president’s continued adherence to tribunals, renditions, wiretaps, intercepts, the continued use of Guantanamo, the use of Predators, and the surge into Afghanistan simply to score political points and to jockey for position in the next presidential race — without consideration of the responsibility of governance, when there are so often only bad and worse choices.

During the health-care debacle, President Obama frequently lamented that he was reduced to ramming through the legislation without a single Republican vote in the Senate — as part of a larger complaint about the unwillingness to step across the aisle and put principle above partisanship.

Yet in 2007, when National Journal tallied the voting records of then-serving U.S. senators, it ranked Barack Obama as the most partisan senator of either party, voting along straight party lines over 95 percent of the time. Even the most conservative current Republican senator, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a frequent target of the Obama administration for his lockstep opposition to the administration’s agenda, has compiled a 93 percent partisan voting record.

What can we make of all this?

President Obama wants us to believe that too many in the conservative opposition simply vote in knee-jerk partisan opposition to his liberal agenda. He declares that what America needs is more congressional bipartisanship of the sort that would give Supreme Court nominees a fair hearing; that would provide support to generals who are trying to bring in more resources to save a failing theater; that would not endanger comprehensive immigration reform by playing to narrow political constituencies; that would cut off corporate campaign cash; and that would understand that our far-from-perfect anti-terrorism protocols may in fact be necessary to keep us safe.

All of this is a fine and noble thing to say, and much of it is quite true. But the problem remains that a President Obama cannot expect complete amnesia on the part of the American people — especially when they suspect that his present calls for bipartisanship in word are in direct proportion to his past rejection of it in deed.

In sum, President Obama’s worst nightmare would be a conservative incarnation of a Senator Obama who in Pavlovian fashion would reject almost all executive initiatives on a strictly political basis — on his way to compiling the most partisan record in the entire U.S. Senate.

Finally, all this is doubly odd in that President Obama is a self-described student of philosophy. So he must know that a theme from Thucydides to Burke is the timeless sanctity of law, custom, and tradition — that one cannot expect, as an insider, to count on the very same protocols that, as an outsider, one once helped to tear apart. Quite simply, for President Obama to restore his presidency, he must now persuade Congress not to act in the fashion that he once found so conducive to his upward career as a senator and presidential candidate.

President Obama’s falling approval ratings are not just due to ineptness on the Gulf oil spill, the economy, and the war, but also to a growing perception of abject hypocrisy and lack of character. The disjunction between Senator Obama and President Obama explains a great deal of why he cannot convince either his opposition or the public as a whole that he will ever quite be sincere about anything.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

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