Supporters of President Obama typically argue that he has had to act alone in the course of his presidency because the GOP is preternaturally hostile to him. Most often the argument they offer comes down to this: Racism. They think that the underlying animus in the Republican rank and file to Obama is discomfort over his race. There’s certainly little doubt that there has been a hardening of partisan lines in recent years, but this goes back much further than our current president’s two terms. Yet there is also little doubt that the hard feelings have hardened. Witness the rise of the Tea Party and now the self-devouring anti-establishment rebellion within the GOP base. Progressives take pleasure in current GOP internal division, of course, even if they find the rise of Trump horrifying (and yet confirmation of their most fevered anti-Republican imaginings). There’s no doubt that passions are running high and a lot of those on the GOP side are still directed at the current president. The question is why it’s come to this.
The GOP closed ranks soon after Obama’s election (marked by Mitch McConnell’s famously intemperate remark about making sure Obama would be a one-term president — a remarkably dumb thing to say publicly even if that is always what political parties aim to do when the other side wins the election). But aside from that initial reaction (of one party hunkering down to protect its turf and regain power) and the usual tension between the legislative and executive branches of government, something more has been going on since Obama stepped into the Oval Office. The left cries racism — and because there HAS been racist sentiment in some quarters hostile to Obama, it’s inordinately easy for them to make that claim. But it’s simplistic and misleading.
Obama won election to the presidency twice and his racial makeup hasn’t changed in all that time. The largest segment of the American electorate clearly has no racial animus. And among those who oppose Obama, most do so because they find his policies wrongheaded. But clearly he has inspired an unusual amount of angst among his opposition during his years in office. Why?
Start with his scornful, non-collegial attitude towards his opponents and then factor in his oft demonstrated willingness to bend the rules (as in the Constitution) to get his way. Presidents in the past have traditionally reached out to their opposition and tried to win converts to their causes, allies on the legislative side of government. Not so, this one.
When he controlled both houses of Congress, President Obama just used the overwhelming support it gave him to push through what he wanted without regard to the concerns of the opposition. Then, losing the House as a result of Americans’ disaffection over the Obamacare political steamroller, he focused on using the Senate, still controlled by Democrats, to stymie any legislation he opposed.
Under then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Congress (which requires joint action by both houses for most things) was paralyzed because Reid controlled the Senate calendar and kept bills sent to the Senate by the House from getting a vote, while keeping Senatorial legislative initiatives under his tight control. He did it to keep bills which presented the president with unpleasant political choices from reaching his desk so the president wouldn’t have to sign or veto (which is why Obama had such a sparse veto record during his years in office).
Even after control of the Senate finally fell to the GOP and Reid lost control of the agenda he used the Senate filibuster to prevent bills the president didn’t want from coming to a vote and thus reaching his desk (e.g., the blocking of a vote on the Iran deal — cut by the president as an executive agreement rather than as a treaty which the scope of that deal would normally have called for). So the left shouldn’t find it so strange that there is so much anger on the conservative side of the aisle. President Obama has used BOTH congressional majorities AND minorities to thwart Republicans in Congress while attacking them from the political stump and excoriating and condescendingly dismissing them in public interview after public interview.
Rather than reach out to the other side to make his case, to win allies over to his side on particular issues, to work with the opposition, the president has high handedly gone round them, unhesitatingly using his power to issue executive orders to alter, overrule or simply replace legislation in this country, thereby usurping the constitutionally designated power of Congress. And he has directed his agencies (see the EPA) to do the same while some of them (like the IRS) have given the appearance of coordinating with members of his administration to act extra legally.
No one on the left should wonder why this president inspires such anger and angst in his political opponents with that kind of record. Nor should they simply assume that it’s all about race.