There are two versions of President Barack Obama: one who preaches unity, compromise, listening to opponents and avoiding division, and one who, in practice, doesn’t compromise, doesn’t listen, spouts nastiness and alienates.
The latest bout of preaching — a fine, fine speech, one of his best — came during graduation ceremonies at the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. He told a cheering crowd that, even though things are better for blacks in America than they have ever been, injustices remain and the graduates should be civically engaged and never fear to speak out.
What he then underlined is that, if they really want to accomplish something, they should also recognize the good in their opponents, understand they may have points worth considering, pay attention to their words, work with them and seek out common ground.
This advice echoed the speech that first won him widespread, jubilant notice. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the Illinois state senator said let’s all hold hands, liberals, conservatives, red states, blue states, blacks, whites — everyone. Only by coming together could America overcome its travails, he intoned as hallelujahs arose from the audience and then around the nation.
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Four years later, after a hope-and-change campaign, he was elected president and, at his inaugural, glaringly said his predecessor’s years in office had been witness to politics that were greedy, petty, irresponsible, discordant and dishonest. He called again for unity and then headed to the White House to further demonstrate how to smash that particular hope.
As an account by Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard relates, Obama soon met with a bipartisan group from Congress, explained his stimulus approach and had a quick reply for a Republican senator who asked if some other ideas might be considered. “I won,” he said. He was even more emphatic in a later speech on the economy: “I don’t want the folks who created this mess to do a lot of talking. I want them to just get out of the way.”
When Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, Republicans were pretty much skipped over in the passing of major legislation. And when the GOP captured the House, they were not sought out for negotiation, a skill Obama never acquired. They were instead subjected to name-calling, Obama’s compensating talent. His speeches typically made Republicans out to be stupid and indecent, as in his remark once that they wanted “dirtier air, dirtier water, less (sic) people with health insurance.”
The Republicans were scarcely angels, but those who insist stalemate was mostly their doing forget or never learned about the tricks of an Obama accomplice known as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Democrat played anti-democratic games even displeasing to many in his own party and killed far more bills coming out of the House than the House killed bills coming out of the Senate.
When voters gave Republicans control of both houses, Obama made out as if the two-thirds of eligible voters who stayed home were as important as the one-third that turned out at the polls. He let it be known unilateralism was coming, it did, and, it has been pointed out, there is no more effective way to infuriate Congress than to unconstitutionally treat it as irrelevant.
Besides still more affronts to Republicans in Washington, Obama has also struck out at Midwesterners (they “cling to their guns and religion”), the population generally (racism is “part of our DNA”) and police (they persistently discriminate against blacks). Surveys have shown Obama to be among the most polarizing presidents in the past 60 years and more, and what arises out of that are extremities, erosion of trust, malfunctioning of government, societal antagonisms and a failure to achieve one’s best ends.
Here’s the answer for his last months in office: He should practice what he preaches.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at email@example.com.