Artur Davis: Obama the Polarizer

Give the New Republic’s Adam Winkler credit for laying some of the blame for the collapse of background checks on gun sales not just on NRA sophistry but on a poorly executed, badly timed, overly polarizing campaign by the Obama Administration. As Winkler points out, the over-reach of going after an assault weapon ban boomeranged badly, serving only to galvanize opposition and define even incremental regulations as a wedge to confiscate guns. And the virtues of a go-for-broke strategy, whatever they were, never compensated for the fact that no assault weapons ban had even a remote chance of passing the House.

I would add an additional point that goes much deeper than tactics and the debate over guns. To a degree that could not have been anticipated, and seems doubly odd for a reelected president, Barack Obama smothers his own initiatives.  He has the capacity to lend eloquence to his own followers’ views, but no demonstrated ability to organize them behind any cause other than putting him in office. He moves literally no sector of the electorate that didn’t vote for him. His intervention in a legislative fight seems good primarily for preserving gridlock. Obama wins elections but through pathways that close quickly and elevate few specific policy aims: in 2008, a backlash against George Bush’s unpopularity and an airy promise of a post-racial society, and in 2012, a relentlessly negative siege against Mitt Romney. And the country that has elected Obama twice is still split to the core, more so today than when he was a senator signing book contracts. And the deepest splits are more around the country’s perception of Obama than around any singular issue.

davis_artur-11None of this means, of course, that there are not a variety of other elements that contribute to the hyper-polarization of the past four years, from the internet’s inevitable pipeline for misinformation, to the continued weight of interest groups like the NRA, to a cable culture that dismisses any efforts by politicians to craft a middle ground as expediency. But it would take an element of willful denial to ignore the fact that Obama occupies the single most divisive space in American politics since Nixon, and that one of the costs is a presidency that is frustratingly weak at persuasion.

It is not too early to wonder if Obama a generation from now looks weirdly like, of all people, Margaret Thatcher: a highly effective campaigner whose victories spun off the unintended consequence of an entrenched cultural opposition, and whose “conviction politics” seem like a relic. Twenty plus years after Thatcherism formally ended, it has been supplanted by a run of center-leaning British prime ministers with a penchant for downplaying sharp ideological rifts. It is not hard to imagine that Obama’s successors won’t be similarly preoccupied with navigating away from the intense divisions of the Obama era.

And that’s no slighting of Thatcher, who enabled several trends that were necessary to Britain’s solvency: most importantly, the unleashing of the country’s then rickety, sclerotic markets and the delegitimizing of organized labor as a counter-governing force. It is the recognition, however, that as even glowing Thatcher obituaries admitted, her tenure ultimately strained and exhausted the electorate. The more centrist leadership styles that followed her were as vital to restoring the national interest as her policies were.

Nor is the Obama/Thatcher comparison an argument that Obama’s achievements will stand up as historically sizable a shift as Thatcher’s re-founding of her country’s economy. Much more than Thatcher, Obama seems to have merely ridden social movements that he did not really shape, his signature triumph on healthcare is already fraying, and his efforts at strengthening the public sector have been fiscally costly without really altering the framework of the social contract. But assuming that Obama’s eight years do amount to an enduring, Thatcher-like movement in a new ideological direction, it seems likely that the national mood will still be weary of the stress marks from Obama’s time in power. The perpetual fight over every domestic priority, the hardening of the left and the right into barbed wire zones of mutual contempt, may prove as unsustainable as the rancorous eighties in the UK did so many seasons ago.

The structural differences in British and American governance produce the place where the Thatcher comparison ultimately breaks down, to Obama’s detriment. The nature of a parliamentary system is that Thatcher’s personal wins translated into a decade of rewritten British law. Obama, obviously, has not been spared the need to bargain and stitch together coalitions with an independent congressional branch. His continuing failure to do that even on initiatives the public favors, and even when he is the only compelling figure on the national stage, is a working exhibit of how the successful politician can still be a stunningly unsuccessful leader.

(Cross-posted at


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