Barack Obama first came to national attention as a conciliator. It was 2004 at the Democratic National Convention and the Illinois state senator made a resounding, eloquent speech calling for national unity. Five years later, at his inauguration as president of the United States, he made another resounding, eloquent speech, this time calling for national division.
Or at least provoking it. Dr. Jekyll was gone, Mr. Hyde was on hand and the healing physician has since been hard to spot as Obama has broken records in polarizing the country. He has stirred up class antagonisms, heightened racial tensions and helped instigate political stalemate. His negotiation style with Republicans has been a modern-age version of a king telling uppity peasants what they had darned well do.
And, on top of that and much more, he now appears ready to harass Donald Trump from a prominent D.C. perch for the next four years, more or less serving as an unofficial leader of disruptive antagonism.
But let’s start with that 2009 inauguration speech that told us so much about the real Obama as he tried to tell us so much about President George W. Bush. As a report in The Guardian newspaper observed, Obama spoke of Bush’s eight years of running things as a time of “greed and irresponsibility,” of “a sapping of confidence” and of “a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable.”
He announced an end to “the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that far too long have strangled our politics.” With Bush sitting close by, the new president said the government must quit “protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions.” He said we must now “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin the work of remaking America,” then failing to go over to Bush, pick him up, dust him off and apologize.
This smooth, charming, brilliant but arrogant man continued to pick on Bush for the next four years as Bush himself said nary a word. And yes, I’ve heard the stuff about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying he wanted to make Obama a one-term president. That happened in a 2010 interview in which he also said he would love it if Obama would try to meet the Republicans at least halfway. So far, he had not, and, in McConnell’s view, his uncompromising agenda was a thing to fear.
Misleading critics love to kick McConnell without mentioning how Obama started his tenure by telling some Republicans he was president and they weren’t, implying they should shut up. The adorers do not delve into the ways in which subservient Harry Reid, easily among the worst Senate majority leaders in U.S. history, did far more than House Republicans to block conciliation on issues of moment. They also excuse Obama’s vow to act unilaterally if necessary after the GOP took over both houses of Congress in 2014.
We’ve got a new issue now, namely that Obama, thoroughly practiced in keeping unity at bay, is not about to let his skills go to waste. He has said he will stay in Washington, D.C., to train Democrats on how to assume power again and has explicitly said he will speak out if he sees Trump going astray. Hardly any president has ever booed successors much — Jimmy Carter is a disgraceful exception — but it’s easy to imagine Obama growling through a media microphone on a daily basis.
Gallup did various polls during this administration showing more political division in the country than ever before. Imagine what could happen with all the anti-Trump virulence, the mass protest rallies already planned and those now refusing to go to Canada despite pleas they get their passports as promised.
We seem to be in for something like a two-president country, and the national hurt could be enormous.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.