Sometimes, pundits are at their best when the party they oppose is in power. Not necessarily so with Peggy Noonan. I’ve long admired her style, but her drip, drip, drip of condescending disdain for Barack Obama wore thin some time ago.
And her column over the weekend, “There’s No ‘I’ in ‘Kumbaya’,” particularly bugged me because she wanted it both ways. First, she wrote:
Mr. Obama’s supporters always give him an out by saying, “But the president can’t work with them, they made it clear from the beginning their agenda was to do him in.” That’s true enough. But it’s true with every American president now—the other side is always trying to do him in, or at least the other side’s big mouths are always braying they’ll take him down. They tried to capsize Clinton, they tried to do in Reagan, calling him an amiable dunce and vowing to defeat his wicked ideology.
We live in a polarized age. We have for a while. One of the odd things about the Obama White House is that they are traumatized by the normal.
A lot of the president’s staffers were new to national politics when they came in, and they seem to have concluded that the partisan bitterness they faced was unique to him, and uniquely sinister. It’s just politics, or the ugly way we do politics now.
In other words, these rubes just need to put their Big Boy pants on and recognize that there’s nothing unique about the calumny heaped on their guy; it’s politics as usual, as regrettable as that may be.
Then, five paragraphs later, she writes of the president:
He is a uniquely polarizing figure. A moderate U.S. senator said the other day: “One thing not said enough is he is the most divisive president in modern history. He doesn’t just divide the Congress, he divides the country.” The senator thinks Mr. Obama has “two whisperers in his head.” “The political whisperer says ‘Don’t compromise a bit, make Republicans look weak and bad.’ Another whisperer is not political, it’s, ‘Let’s do the right thing, work together and begin to right the ship.’ ” The president doesn’t listen much to the second whisperer.
So… which is it? Is this politics as usual, or is the polarization Obama inspires “unique?”
She would probably defend her inconsistency by saying that the unique part is all Obama’s fault, that the animus aimed at him would be politics as usual, except for the way he deliberately rachets it up.
Which would probably be persuasive to a partisan Republican. Not so much to the rest of us along the spectrum. Not to this independent, anyway.
The polarization that characterizes the president’s relationship with his political opponents is indeed unique. Yes, it exists on a political timeline in which we have seen continuing, rising polarization dating back, I would say, to the early 1980s (from my perspective, about 1982, when Robin Beard ran a startlingly negative Senate campaign against Jim Sasser in the state where I was, while in SC, a young man named Lee Atwater was moving from dirty local campaigns toward national prominence), and becoming overt to the point of completely poisoning presidents’ relationships with their not-so-loyal oppositions starting in about January 1993.
But there’s a unique flavor to the animus toward Obama, and has been since the beginning. That’s not an excuse for him not to work in good faith with the opposition, to the extent that they will let him. But it’s a fact.