He said he had the audacity to hope that America could rise above the politics of partisan polarization and embrace the sunlight paths of compromise and cooperation. But that was then and this is now.
Faced with falling polls and the chance of wholesale obliteration of his majorities in Congress, President Obama has plainly decided to pursue the very politics of division and partisan animus he once claimed to eschew.
To grasp the reasons behind Obama's descent into the mud, start with some basic facts. In 2008, he won almost exactly the same percentage of the white vote that John Kerry won in 2004. The reasons he won and Kerry lost were all demographic:
- Obama generated an African-American turnout three points higher than Kerry, and almost all of those new voters supported him.
- Latino-American voters gave Obama a margin of 45 points while they supported Kerry by only 10 — and they constituted one percent more of the vote in '08 than in '04.
- Obama offset his losses among older white voters by increasing the turnout and the Democratic margin among whites under age 30.
While Obama seemed to avoid the politics of race in his campaign, identity politics and ethnic fault lines were in fact crucial to electing him president.
Now he's returning to dance with those that brought him. He has launched a broad campaign to polarize the electorate and increase levels of fear and racial tension to serve his cause. Each aspect of this new offensive has a clear strategic objective.
- Obama is outspoken in his criticism of the Arizona immigration law as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pushes an immigration-reform bill. Both surely realize that the bill has no serious chance of enactment this year now that the Republicans, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have walked away from the table. But they want the issue and the polarization it brings.
By making Hispanic voters feel under assault — by emphasizing that the Arizona law could mean that they would be hauled down to the police station at any moment to prove their legal status — Obama hopes to repeat the Democrats' top-heavy Latino margins from 2008.
- His second front is to demonize Fox News and conservative advocacy groups like the tea partyers as polarizing and even accuse them of fomenting domestic terrorism. While he denounces Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, former President Bill Clinton darkly warns that the anti-government rhetoric of the tea party activists could incite Oklahoma City-style bombings and terrorism.
Both men are trying to scare the left and motivate a high turnout by painting the right as a force of darkness. By warning of barbarians at the gate, they hope to remedy the low turnout that has cost the Democrats victories in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts.
- Obama is also stepping up his attacks on the likes of Goldman Sachs and BP, disregarding the inconvenient truth that he is the largest recipient of their campaign donations in the nation. While both firms richly deserve our contempt, Obama is hoping to use their misconduct to link Republicans to big business and big oil to deflect his own efforts to foist big government on the country.
All these efforts reflect the basic problem Democrats have in off-year elections — that voter turnout is typically 15 to 20 points lower than in presidential years. Normally, it is precisely the president's political base that stays home — African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, single women, and young people.
By raising racial and partisan tensions and stoking class animosities, Obama hopes to gin up the turnout and avert disaster for his party in November.
Republicans must not take the bait. They should emphasize employer penalties for hiring illegals so that the flow dries up and neither harsh laws like Arizona's nor an amnesty will be needed.
The GOP needs to stress Obama's connections with both Goldman and BP and push their own ideas for regulatory reform. And Fox News needs to continue to do what it does best — get new viewers and expand its reach.
© Dick Morris & Eileen McGann