Clarence Lusane: Obama, They’re Just Not That Into You, Move On

By Guest Columnist Oct 01, 2009

Clarence Lusane is Associate Professor at the American University School of International Service, and is a contributing author to Changing the Race: Racial Politics and the Election of Barack Obama, being published today by Applied Research Center. The edited volume features 20 prominent thinkers and activists on race and the 2008 election. Barely nine months into his administration, President Obama finds himself at a cross-roads. At one level, a top policy priority, health care reform, is in trouble. His popular support has steadily decreased and angry mobs and extremist media have dominated the conversation putting Democratic supporters on the defensive and made Republicans feel emboldened in their obstructionist behavior. Even before a real bill has been fashioned, the White House and Hill Democrats have tossed out (or hinted at a willingness to cast off) key progressive provisions. It is already clear at this point that whatever passes, indeed, if anything passes at all, it will be neutered and not contain the central elements that Obama outlined during the campaign and early in his term, such as universal coverage and potentially not the “public option,” let alone the progressive demand for a single payer, insurance industry-free model. Already the Republicans are gearing up for the fight over the Climate Change bill. They clearly believe that if the tactics of intimidation, misinformation, outright lies, agitation, and not a little bit of racism from Fox News and hysterically-conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh worked so well to derailed health reform — why not employ them again. The weak, confused, and belated response from the White House – sending Obama out to the masses and more press conferences – has not only been inadequate but is exacerbating the differences within the Democratic Party. The tenuous unity from Blue Dogs conservatives to Kennedyist liberals is fracturing, as the White House sends mixed signals about what it actually is willing to defend and what it will abandon. Despite the rage machine that the Republicans have created and fostered, with some very disturbing and dangerous trajectories, the blame for this growing crisis of policy and political wandering flows back to the White House and perhaps Obama himself. Using a relevant health care analogy, Obama has become unhealthily addicted to bipartisanism. His continued use will be his downfall. Bipartisanism as a tactic and even a goal has it merits. Certainly the nation benefits from a collective effort to tackle the major issues and policies concerns it faces. There are many instances, though not in recent memory, where cross-party cooperation has served the country well and produced benefits for many. However, bipartisanism as a principle has tremendous flaws. First and foremost, it is a foolish track if the other side simply is in no mood for it. Eight years of Bush-Cheney and 12 straight years of Republican rule of Congress (1995-2007) saw a brusque and crude approach to policy-making that marginalized Democrats all the way around. The period also crushed and exterminated what was left of the moderate wing of the Republican Party. But now the worm has turned. Beyond the historic nature of Obama’s election, his triumph most importantly also signaled the end of the conservative era of political dominance dating back to Ronald Reagan’s first term in the early 1980s. Drunk with power, the Republicans never gave an inch despite many years of a centrist President Bill Clinton and a compliant Democratic Party in Congress. Under the ideological rants, hegemonic dreams, and unethical political tactics of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and then Bush strategist Karl Rove, they envisioned a Republican Reich being in power for generations to come. Their resounding defeat, first in Congress in 2006 and then in 2008, long in the making, left a bitter and revengeful taste both inside and outside of Congress. Despite the many, many constitutional violations committed by the Bush administration, it was insulated from demonstrations and protests by managing Bush appearances before hand-picked audiences and friendly media, and fear-mongering about terrorists around every corner. There were certainly not the types of organized horde activities that became regular this past summer. One cannot imagine a Bush rally or event where people on the left (or the right) showed up strapped with handguns and automatics – even for a president who was an unabashed gun rights advocate. There is, however, another element besides hyper-conservatism that was on display at the rallies targeting Democratic politicians and Obama himself: explicit racism. Racial rage at Obama has been accelerating virtually since the first moment it became clear that he could win the presidency. First, during the Democratic primaries a number of racial incidents occurred, both well known and not-so-well-known, though mostly in the form of anonymous death threats, coded rhetoric, and early voting habits. This all became very minor compared to what unfolded during the general election campaign and, particularly in the rallies built around then Vice President nominee former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Whether Palin, a parochial, embarrassingly shallow politician thrust into a position well beyond her capabilities, initiated the racial fury that emerged or simply exploited it is irrelevant. Embracing a surge of support that she had never experience before, she encouraged, cheered, supported, defended, and repeated some of the most outrageous statements shouted at these gatherings. It is debatable if the extremists were a minority or not at these events, but they were certainly the dominant voices and drove the energy of Palin’s campaign. The anti-Obama fervor was so intense and provocative that the Secret Service, already on extra alert and with more and earlier protection for the Obamas than any other candidate in history, had to intervene and asked the McCain-Palin campaign to tone it down and try to bring some control over the situation. There is not a lot of indication that her campaign complied. At those rallies people shouted loudly and clearly “terrorist” and “kill him,” the latter prompting a Secret Service investigation. Palin (and McCain), after stroking the crowd into a frenzy through personal attacks on Obama by falsely accusing him of “palling around with terrorists,” simply ignored these exclamations. She did not criticize or try to put a stop to them in any shape or form. In the last weeks of the campaign as it became clear even to the McCain-Palin camp that victory was unlikely, McCain toned down his attacks, but Palin’s rose. But Palin is footnote material. The real shame of the period, and manifest today, is that virtually no Republican leader, local or national, spoke out against these excesses and their racist content. In one instance, McCain corrected a woman who claimed that Obama was a Muslim – though, as the Huffington Post reported, he did not note (and perhaps did not know) that she, in part, got that information from her local Republican Party headquarters. Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Guiliani, Mitt Romney, and other national and congressional Republican leaders rarely if ever corrected anyone. The poisonous atmosphere, unfortunately, did not end with the electoral thrashing that the Republicans experienced in November, or with the selection of a black Chairman of the Party, Michael Steele. Indeed, the conservative right now had a more urgent rationale: stop President Obama at all costs and by any means necessary. The anti-Candidate Obama movement, anchored in the Republican Party, metastasized into several concurrent movements including the “birthers,” the anti-socialist/anti-communist crowd, the secessionists, and obstructionists on Capital Hill. According to a Daily Kos poll, 28% of self-identified Republicans are definitely convinced that Obama was not born in the United States, while 30% are not sure. In other words, only 42% of the party believes that Obama is legitimately president of the United States. Add to this group, the far right media led by Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and others, and the really far-right racists who have also seen a surge of support since the Obama election. Lou Dobbs on CNN, the network that initially hosted Glenn Beck, continues his racist, anti-immigrant fumings on a nightly basis. The unsuccessful racialized attacks on Sonia Sotomayor by Republicans in the U.S. Senate and elsewhere by other conservatives spread the ire to the Latino community — already in revolt against the GOP over immigration, a key reason why about two-thirds broke recent trends and voted for Obama. The Sotomayor antics pretty much solidifies the whites-only zone that the Republican Party now occupies. As a consequence of its own making, the Republican Party has nowhere to go but white. The most telling element here is that in the mix of all of this, there has not arose a single national Republican who has taken a stand against the racist, xenophobic, extremist behaviors that are overtly on display. Afraid to alienate the base, the lesser ideological of the Republicans have remained silent. Some have noted that if the public expressions of racism have been so blatant one can only imagine what is going on in the many, many private political gatherings that characterize local Republican Party politics. The fact that some of those mouthing the worse of these accusations are black, Asian, Indian, and Latino does not mask the reality that the crowds carrying bigoted posters and shouting down Democrats and Obama are virtually all white. What should constitute genuine anger and bitterness from not only whites, but everyone else regarding the state of the country after nearly a decade and a half in Republican hands has been exploited by right wing media, political, and corporate interests. Misdirected resentment, however, deflects from targeting the real destroyers of people’s dreams and lives over the last decade. It was the Bush administration that allowed a housing crisis to develop out of control. It was the Bush administration that failed to regulate the financial institutions that brought the country to the brink of economic collapse. It was the Bush administration that actually threatened to privatize Medicaid and Medicare, the two government run medical programs that the base of the Republican Party cherishes. It was the Bush administration that violated nearly every right enshrined in the Bill of Rights ranging from prohibition against torture, right of habeus corpus, freedom of religion, due process, trial by jury, right to a speedy trial, and unreasonable search and seizure. And it was the Bush administration that committed impeachable offensives such as taking the country into an illegal, unwarranted war. In the crowds that showed up at the summer rallies and town hall meetings, it was difficult to distinguish real concerns that need to be addressed from the manufactured and insincere outrage and extremist opportunists. The sad fact is that no one in the Republican Party is making the effort. That these and future events will lead to violence at some point is almost beside the point as these distinctions shrink. Thus Obama is facing a determined opposition that does not want to and intends not to play fair. Obama may be the only one in Washington who wants bipartisan legislation. It ain’t gonna happen. The sooner he realizes that a more constructive and likely more productive approach is to get on with his agenda with or without Republican support, the happier he (and the rest of us) will be. The Republicans have placed their bets on an unyielding partisanship that they believe is their pathway back to power. Why would they give that up? Finally, I would point to the policy achievements of one of Obama’s heroes, Franklin Roosevelt. No one remembers whether he pushed through his grand, nation-changing legislative initiatives by one vote or 20. In the long run, 40, 50 years from now, either the nation will remember the great accomplishments of the Obama administration (and the wonderful fights they generated), or that a great opportunity was squandered on the pedestal of an unachievable bipartisanism.