Politics & Policy

A Bitter Presidency

Division, not hope.

Barack Obama wasn’t sufficiently vetted by the media before he was elected president in 2008, and Kate Obenshain would like to avoid a repeat this year. And so she’s written Divider-in-Chief: The Fraud of Hope and Change; she discusses her case against the president with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: So you mean for your book to be a reminder? An awakening? Is there any shot of getting it into new hands? People who do not already see President Obama as a “divider”?

KATE OBENSHAIN: You bet, I meant it for an awakening. With Obama’s approval rate hovering around 50 percent, we need a great awakening. There is no reason for this president to still have those numbers. The strategy of dividing Americans by identifying an “enemy” on which segments of Americans can focus their frustrations and disappointments is incredibly effective. But it’s incredibly destructive, as well. It’s destructive from a policy standpoint, as it allows Obama to ram through his radical agenda, but also from the standpoint of shutting down the intellectual debate — the back-and-forth of ideas that is essential to the health of our republic.

Whenever I speak, I urge people to pass the book along to an Obama fan after they read it. From what I understand, that’s exactly what’s happening. I put the facts at your fingertips, one after another — some of which we had forgotten, others we’ve never heard — and they are like a slap in the face. This book makes us realize how stunningly cynical and divisive this president has been. He was elected for one reason: He was going to be the great uniter — heal our wounds and bring us together. Yet from day one — or, literally, day three — he has been the most divisive president in our nation’s history. That is a devastating truth that everyone needs to truly grasp.

LOPEZ: Does everyone know that political talk of “Hope, unity, and post-partisanship” is oftentimes empty talk? Is it any surprise that peace didn’t come to Washington under President Obama?

OBENSHAIN: The 2010 elections showed us that people weren’t buying it — the whole hope and bring-us-all-together thing. Obama himself said, “There were those who argued that because I had spoken of a need for unity in this country, that our nation was somehow entering into a period of post-partisanship. That didn’t work out so well.” Women and young people, in particular, who had flocked to Obama’s message were disillusioned by the rancor that they saw stemming from the president himself.

And yet after four years of divisiveness and vilifying their opponents, the Democrats, Obama in particular, are reaping a costly harvest. The dynamic has changed dramatically from four years ago. Notice we don’t hear that “hope and change” rhetoric, or calls to post-partisanship, from Obama. We hear fear-mongering, bitterness. There is no bright panorama of a bright future — rather it’s “If you vote for Republicans they are going to take women back to the Stone Age and give breaks to their millionaire and billionaire friends at the expense of children with autism and Down syndrome.”

Roughly half the public — the half that supported Obama in 2008 — has transitioned with Obama to diminished expectations. They have focused their growing animosity, stoked by the president himself, on those they have been conditioned to suspect — anyone who has succeeded to a greater extent than they, or who doesn’t walk in lock ideological step with Barack Obama.


LOPEZ: Why is Saul Alinsky important? Still?

OBENSHAIN: You bet he is. If we had understood him four years ago, we as a nation might not be in the mess we find ourselves in today. Understand Saul Alinsky, and what the president is doing in creating deep, lasting divisions between us becomes crystal clear.

Alinsky’s philosophy, as outlined in his Rules for Radicals, was Obama’s guide as a community organizer. He wrote that it was a community organizer’s task to take “apathetic workers” and stir discontent with the status quo, fanning “resentments and hostilities by a number of means.” Obama was very good at this, earning the reputation as the “undisputed master of agitation.” The community organizer would keep their ideology cloaked so they would be perceived as seeking commonsense, not political, goals. But they would use the discontent and ire they stirred up to drive through their political goals without a lot of discussion or debate about the actual merits of those goals. The frothing discontent and mistrust of the people was enough to drive it through.

I wrote a chapter in my book called “The Community Organizer President” because clearly Obama took those rules to the White House. I think it’s critical that we understand this president’s strategy and how he is literally playing us, so that we can effectively expose the strategy for what it is, before the ultimate political goals are achieved.


LOPEZ: How was the Affordable Care Act a “flashpoint for Obama’s divisiveness”?

OBENSHAIN: This was the president who was going to listen to the opposing viewpoint, “especially when we disagree.” He knew how vastly unpopular his Obamacare proposal was, and yet instead of listening, modifying, building consensus, he rammed it through — using false pretense that the mandate was not a tax. (It is, as we knew all along, a half-trillion tax hike on the middle class.) It is just one of the many political objectives, though perhaps the most economically devastating one, that Obama was able to drive through because of the animosity he stoked among the American people. The enemy to be despised were the big, bad insurance companies; Big Pharma; greedy, overpaid doctors; and, of course, as always, Republicans.

We were assured, in one of many pre-election platitudes, that there would be live C-SPAN broadcasts of the Obamacare proceedings. Instead, the deliberations took place behind closed doors with the presence of lobbyists and the notable absence of C-SPAN, Republicans, and the American people. No one knew the full impact of the legislation except that it would mean the government takeover of roughly one-fifth of the American economy.

There was nothing transcendent about the Obamacare debate. It was filled with invective and nastiness, as backroom, lobbyist-driven as they come, and Obama rammed it through by telling the American people it was not a tax (it was), it would lower health-care costs (it didn’t), and it was part of their fair share (only if fair share means getting screwed).


LOPEZ: That “hostage takers” accusation was sort of shocking for a president to make about House Republicans in 2010, wasn’t it? Remind us of the context — and wasn’t there some vindication in the Bob Woodward book?

OBENSHAIN: In December 2010, the president held a press conference to talk about the looming end to the Bush-era tax cuts, and Obama was not happy about the Republican refusal to compromise on tax hikes. During what can only be described as a petulant press conference, Obama said, “It’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. . . . In this case, the hostage was the American people.”

It was just as shocking as the president’s alluding to those who disagreed with him on immigration as “the enemy” or to those who disagreed with him on domestic oil drilling as “founding members of the flat-Earth society.” This is just Obama’s way. The man who said to Republicans during his inaugural address, “I want to listen to you especially when we disagree,” shifted within months to say, “I don’t want the folks who created this mess to do a lot of talking. . . . I don’t mind cleaning up after them, but don’t do a lot of talking.”

In Woodward’s book The Price of Politics, he points out that a Democrat was the first “hostage taker.” Senator Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) threatened Obama a year earlier that he would block an increase in the debt ceiling unless there was a clear commitment on the part of the president to address the ballooning fiscal problems.

LOPEZ: Why make an observation like “Ego is Barack Obama’s defining characteristic”?

OBENSHAIN: I make the point not to be snarky, but because his ego drives much of what he does and his disdain for the opinions of others. It is a characteristic that can’t be ignored or glossed over. This is the man who said upon receiving the nomination, “I am absolutely certain that generations from now we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended war . . . ” and so on. That’s a stunning presumption for any human being and goes a long way toward explaining this president’s sense that he, and only he, possesses the wisdom to help us “heal our wounds” and that his vision for our nation — a fundamentally transformed nation — is for our own good.

One of the attributes of a great leader is his willingness to surround himself with experts, and also actually to listen to them. Obama thinks he is always the smartest person in the room — and that can be dangerous. He told David Plouffe when he first interviewed him for a campaign position, “I think I could probably do every job on the campaign better than the people I’ll hire to do it.” Obama once joked that his greatest weakness is that “it’s possible that I’m a little too awesome.” Unfortunately, in this case, it’s no joke.

We have seen the consequences of that. When the sheer force of his personality wasn’t enough to win Republicans immediately to his side, he dismissed any effort to meet or work with them, and began immediately to vilify them instead of deigning to debate them on the issues. Instead of trying to compromise and deal honestly with the American people when they didn’t agree with him on the unpopular Obamacare initiative, he rammed it through using deceit, divisive scare tactics, and brute force. And by taking excessive credit over the bin Laden killing — spiking the football, so to speak — he further antagonized the volatile situation in the Middle East.

LOPEZ: I think just about every book from the right on President Obama mentions Solyndra. But do people really want to hear about it? Will they, when it’s not exactly on the news every night? Should it be?

OBENSHAIN: Solyndra is one of the great whitewashed scandals of this administration, and it has not been talked about nearly enough. I address it in Divider-in-Chief as what it is: a prime example of crony capitalism and yet another example of how the Obama administration has placed its narrow ideological interests ahead of the interests of the American people — particularly the middle class it claims to champion.

Over half a billion dollars in taxpayers’ stimulus dollars went to a failing “green energy” company — and the administration knew it. They even asked the company to delay layoffs until after the mid-term elections in 2010. Even the Washington Post reported that political considerations “infused almost every level of the decision-making on granting the Solyndra loan and later administration efforts to keep the company afloat.”

So, money that was supposed to go to shovel-ready jobs to help jump-start the economy and improve the struggles of the “middle class” instead went to a green company whose shareholders and executives made numerous and substantial donations to Obama’s campaign. Even after it defaulted on its $535 million loan, the administration continued to loan it money — our money. The American people are profoundly interested when they know they’ve been scammed. In this case, they have been — big time, and they deserve to know.

LOPEZ: Many of our readers may remember, but not every American saw it: Who is Julia and why does she matter?

OBENSHAIN: In one of their more blatant and I would say backfiring panders, the Obama campaign decided to show women how much government under Barack Obama had improved their lives. They released an interactive slide show called “The Life of Julia,” which chronicles how the government, in its beneficence, has sustained this woman from cradle to grave.

Of course, the website was instructive in the Obama administration’s condescension toward women (note it was not “The Life of Bob”), to which I devote some time in my book. He assumes they need government’s merciful hand in order to walk through this life. But it also is a lesson in Obama’s overall view of government. Recall Obama’s language when he was first elected. American could not rise out of the recession without government stepping in, hence the stimulus. The American people now cannot succeed without government’s help, hence the endless extension of unemployment benefits, the doubling of food-stamp recipients, the skyrocketing in disability recipients. As Nancy Pelosi pointed out, leftists believe programs that foster dependence are the best stimulus programs. Liberals like Obama truly do believe that government knows best, and that the little people, apparently women included, do best when they are in some way dependent on government’s largesse.

LOPEZ: Who are the “Obama Defectors,” and can he win them?

OBENSHAIN: The Obama Defectors were those who supported Obama in 2008 but then abandoned him in the 2010 midterm elections. Obama, for example, captured 56 percent of female voters in 2008, but two years later, Republicans won among women for the first time since 1982. That was a significant shift. The economy was of utmost importance to the defectors, but close behind was the ability to unite people across party lines. Obama had promised that this would be his great strength; yet in 2010 many women were disillusioned toward the president. He had not delivered on hope and change.

Obama’s team is well aware of the polling numbers, and why they lost women voters. They also know that they cannot win them back on the economy, nor can they on unity or “hope and change.” So the division has been ratcheted up. Republicans, the steady drumbeat goes, despise women, want to take away their birth control, and have launched an all-out “war on women.” Though seemingly transparent and cynical, the “master of agitation” knows how to distract from the realities that don’t work to his favor, and how to shut down his opposition. In other words, yes, he can win them. The other side needs to be aware of what he’s doing, and counter it with the facts.

LOPEZ: Is it fair to say Obama has failed women? He stopped House Republicans from defunding Planned Parenthood! He curbed religious freedom for contraception, abortion-drug, and sterilization coverage!

OBENSHAIN: Right. My point exactly. He’s failed women. Abysmally. To Obama, women’s issues run the gamut from A (abortion) to B (birth control) — a rather limited view of women and their interests, but it speaks volumes about this administration.

Women are experiencing the highest poverty rate in 17 years. Of households led by women, 40 percent of them are living in poverty — 40 percent! Women are not getting jobs lost due to the recession back at the rate of men. They are hit particularly hard by gas prices that have doubled under Obama, food-price spikes, and Obamacare costs that are being implemented — such as the “medicine-cabinet tax” and upcoming limits on what individuals can put in their flex-spending accounts.

The patronizing of women that Obama employs — from his White House’s being an acknowledged “good ol’ boy” club, to “The Life of Julia,” to Stephanie Cutter’s suggesting women aren’t concerned about the last four years — is mind-blowing. He gives them a pat on the head and raises issues he sees as involving them when he can use them to his political advantage to divide the public and distract from his economic record.

The other failure would be this president’s refusal to defend conservative women from vicious misogynist speech. Not only does he refuse to defend them, but he takes money, lots of it, from some of the most flagrant offenders. When the president injects himself when women who share his ideology are attacked, but ignores the far more offensive attacks on women who don’t, he implicitly condones those attacks, and makes them acceptable forms of public discord. That tells women they are worthy only of defense if they walk in lockstep with President Obama. And it tells those who would attack conservative women, to divide them from other women and attempt to marginalize them, “Have at it.”

LOPEZ: “Listen carefully whenever the president talks about abortion or birth control. Very often you’ll hear him invoke what would seem to be unlikely sources of inspiration for his radical views: his daughters, Malia and Sasha.” Why is this important to point out?

OBENSHAIN: I point this out because it reveals the irony and hypocrisy of Obama. The Obamas have appropriately made it clear that their daughters are off limits to the media. Yet President Obama often goes out of his way to bring his daughters into the public discourse in order to bolster his political or policy objectives. It’s often in the context of abortion.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama told an audience that he supported schools’ teaching children about abortion and contraception because “I don’t want [my daughters] punished with a baby.”

He invoked them when defending Sandra Fluke during the contraception debate against a comment by Rush Limbaugh. He said, “I called Ms. Fluke . . . because I thought about Malia and Sasha and one of the things that I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about.” And he brought them into the discussion again when defending his about face on the gay-marriage issue.

I have no doubt that Obama has been influenced on issues by being a father. But I also have no doubt that Obama figures Americans will be more likely to accept his radical positions on those issues if he prefaces his statements of support with declarations about his experience as a father of two daughters. It’s a cynical game Obama plays — on the one hand, his children are off limits, and on the other, he invokes them when political necessity calls. And just as vilifying his opponents helps to silence them on facts, bringing his girls up is intended to blunt the opposition’s effectiveness as well.

LOPEZ: Why do you insist the Left is “obsessed” with abortion?

OBENSHAIN: I find it laughable that the Left likes to say conservatives talk about social issues all the time — when they are clearly obsessed. But they have a reason beyond their desire for abortion on demand at all stages of pregnancy. Abortion is an intensely polarizing issue. They need it right now. It plays into their “war on women” mantra and distracts from their downright abysmal record on the economy and the almost daily reports that there is no sign of relief. If they can use the abortion and contraception issues to vilify Republicans as “launching an all-out war on women,” then they undermine Republicans on all issues. Of course not all women are predominantly concerned about birth control. But the Democrats’ goal is to make it broader than that — Republicans, they insist, actually despise women. They want to take them back and subject them to tyranny. It is the Alinsky tactic, again, of identifying an enemy, impugning their character and motives, stirring up animosity against them, and pushing through one’s own agenda.

LOPEZ: “Sheer cynicism” is how you describe the HHS mandate. But surely there are some good intentions behind it. How can we talk to more people more effectively about it? I’m not sure simply talking about “religious freedom” works as the Obama administration claims to be “unwavering” in its defense.

OBENSHAIN: The HHS mandate has two intentions. The first is an attempt to advance the administration’s objective of free birth control and universal abortion. The second is a flagrant attack on religious freedom. The cynicism stems from the fact that the Obama administration picked an issue on which they know the Catholic Church is not in line with the public — birth control — and one on which they can divide the Church, both from the public and internally. If Obama can convince the public that the Church wants to deny women their “basic right” to birth control, he can trump the Church’s genuine right, under the First Amendment, to practice its faith as it sees fit without trampling on the rights of another. If the government can compel a religious organization to violate its core beliefs — exactly what the Obama administration wants to do — then religious freedom will no longer exist.

The Left wants this to devolve into a discussion about birth control. Even though the Catholic Church, and other religions objecting to this mandate, object only to the compulsion that they provide insurance that covers procedures and drugs antithetical to their faith, not to the public availability of birth control, the Democrats have used it, again, cynically, to further their “war on women” number against those politicians who defend the Church. Obama has distorted the facts and attempted to remove the fundamental constitutional issue from the discussion. When the constitutional right to religious freedom is the issue, the mandate loses support. When it’s all about birth control, it wins.

LOPEZ: Why do you spend so much time in the book on religion and religious freedom?

OBENSHAIN: Many of our forefathers came to the New World to escape religious persecution. They came seeking the freedom to worship as they saw fit, without intimidation, persecution, or interference from the government. This is part of the very essence of who we are as a people. It is not just “tolerance” or “freedom of worship” within four walls, as this administration tries to argue, shifting the lexicon. It is the freedom of religion — the right to practice our faith in private, and how we live our lives in public, and how we form our faith-based organizations.

Beyond that very core freedom of religion, all our freedoms are based on our religious tradition. Our founding fathers were willing to risk their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor not for power for themselves but for this revolutionary notion that our rights don’t come from government. They come from the Almighty. He entrusted freedom to us, to guard vigilantly from the intrusive, power-hungry hand of government. We are an audacious experiment in liberty. But that liberty is premised on our faith. We guard our religious tradition because we guard liberty. Any attack on our faith heritage is a threat to freedom itself.

We see examples the world over of nations whose citizens have lost their right to worship and believe as they see fit, where the persecuted church is hunted, where fanatics and terror prevail. And we see countries that have lost any sense of their religious heritage, of freedom as a gift from God, and any understanding of the importance of an acknowledgment of Him in a civil society. That cannot happen here in America, where we are, indeed, the last best hope of man on earth.

LOPEZ: What’s the conscience consensus President Obama has violated?

OBENSHAIN: President Obama has regularly violated our tradition of respecting rights of conscience. Although he claimed at one time to support “robust” conscience protections for those with religious or moral objections to participating in abortions, he rescinded an HHS order that strengthened existing federal conscience laws.

Obama says that “reproductive justice” is “one of the most fundamental rights we possess.” He and his allies consider “reproductive care,” including abortion, to be “preventive care” and thus “fundamental care.” Since they are “essential” and “fundamental” to health care, birth control and abortion on demand must be covered in all health plans free of charge. To abortion advocates, including the Obama administration, whenever First Amendment conscience rights collide with access to abortion or birth control, “reproductive rights” must triumph.

LOPEZ: What’s the “real war on women,” and how has the president “retreated”?

OBENSHAIN: The real war on women is being waged not here at home but around the world, particularly in the Middle East and China. But on that war, this administration has been silent. In fact, Obama has enabled the oppression of women around the globe who live under the tyranny of Islamist regimes. When Obama calls those regimes and the faith they espouse “tolerant,” without ever mentioning their excesses, abuses, and cruelties against women, he fails all women. He wants to provide them “reproductive freedom” — the right to abortion at any time during their pregnancy — but he will not stand up for their right to walk outside their front door without a male chaperone, to go to school, to work with men in a business, much less to own a business. He fails all women. The president says we can negotiate with the Taliban as Afghanistan schoolgirls have been poisoned or attacked with acid, and prominent female political leaders killed. Obama said nothing when [Afghan president Hamid] Karzai embraced a ruling from the top religious body that defined men as “fundamental” and women as “secondary.”

I cannot listen to leftists fear-monger and fabricate about Republican “assaults” on the rights of women here in American without becoming enraged that they ignore genuine assaults and persecutions, in an apparent effort to elevate Islam and protect it from genuine critiques.

The Washington Post reported that a senior U.S. official “involved in Afghanistan policy said . . . gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities. . . . There’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project.”

Nor will Obama stand up for the rights of women in China to bear their children without being subjected to forced, and sometimes late-term, abortions. In 2009, Hillary Clinton told Chinese officials that the Obama administration would not let human-rights issues “interfere” with other important matters between the countries, including climate change. On a visit to China, Vice President Joe Biden dismissed not once, but twice, China’s brutal policies. He said, “Your policy has been one which I fully understand — I’m not second-guessing — of one child per family.”

LOPEZ: Can he lose the youth?

OBENSHAIN: In 2008, Obama won young people by 34 percentage points. They were more entranced by the “hope and change,” transcending-politics-as-usual message than most. But the veneer wore off quickly as they heard “We are the change we’ve been waiting for” shift to “I won, you lost.” And then there are the economic consequences.

For the first time in history, young people think their future will be less prosperous than their parents’. Student-loan debt has surpassed credit-card debt. In June, the jobless rate for 18- to-24-year-olds was nearly twice the overall jobless rate. And young people know that they will bear the brunt of either paying back an astronomical national debt or dealing with the consequences of default and bankruptcy.

It is unlikely that Romney will win the youth vote. His message has not been able to catch fire with young people, to energize and inspire them, although Paul Ryan has lit something of a spark. But while Obama will probably still win young people, the margin will be diminished, and the number of young people sitting this one out will rise dramatically.

LOPEZ: Everyone’s offering armchair political advice to Mitt Romney. How about to the voter?

OBENSHAIN: The American voter wants a presidential candidate who stands for something — courageously advocates a set of ideas based on sound, well-stated logic and fact. They don’t want equivocating, they don’t want defensiveness or weakness, and they have had enough of division. They don’t mind differences being painted clearly; in fact, they need to know why one vision and one set of ideas are different. But they need specifics. They trusted blindly last time, fell for lofty words and slogans, and they got four years of economic malaise. The voter’s advice for Romney: Be presidential; bring the nation together not by the sheer force of personality, but by the power and irresistibility of your ideas. Share with us your vision for the greatness of America — what she was, and what she can become.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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