Shakedown Politics

November 10th, 2009

During his campaign, President Obama ran as a “post-partisan” — a president who would not be consumed by partisan battles. A president that would unite rather than divide us. A president that finds common ground between us, and works from there.

In his inauguration address, he said:

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

It was an inviting position. The example he used throughout his campaign, an example that was particularly appealing to me, was abortion. Both supporters and those who oppose it have strong beliefs. Rather than focus on where we disagree, though, Obama said we should focus on what we agree on — that abortions should be reduced.

Obama seemed to say that he’d try to bridge the two sides, and try to work on what is agreed upon, instead of serving as an abortion rights partisan. How to reduce abortions performed, of course, is another issue entirely; sexual education in school is another controversial issue, but by starting from common ground, this shifts the debate.

If two groups as diametrically opposed as these could somehow find a goal they agree upon, and start a discussion from there on how to achieve it, then the debate would shift. Rather than begin with hostility — “you support murder!”, “you want to control my body!” — which only engenders abject hatred, we begin with some semblance of respect between each other. Beginning with our differences turns the other person into an enemy, who is (by definition) wrong and must be defeated. We listen to what they say only to find its weakness, rather than to understand what the person is saying.

But if we can start with something we agree upon, the dynamic is quite different: our commonality is emphasized, and we try to understand what the other person believes. That is a much better place for contentious issues like abortion to be discussed, and it would go a long way toward reducing the political temperature.

Unfortunately, after taking office, Obama took a quite different approach. Rather than stay above partisan battles and try to bridge the gaps, Obama enthusiastically jumped into it.


It began just after taking office, a glimmer of what was to come. During a meeting with Republicans on the stimulus package, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl criticized the bill’s balance of government spending and tax cuts, and Obama’s response was: “I won.”

These are not the words of a president trying to reduce partisanship — it is partisanship. It is unbecoming of a president to use their victory as the justification for their agenda. It signals that, rather than considering the nation’s interests as a whole, as presidents should — he is interested solely in advancing his base’s causes.

This mindset soon became a strategy: anyone who criticizes the administration’s plans should be ruined.

In April, negotiations between the administration, Chrysler and Chrysler’s stakeholders took place. The White House wanted secured bondholders (bondholders that, during bankruptcies, come before unsecured bondholders and shareholders) to take thirty cents for every dollar of debt owed by Chrysler, while the United Auto Workers would receive nearly full value for their $10.6 billion of health care retiree claims. This flouts bankruptcy law — the UAW was an unsecured stockholder, and their claims should come after the secured bondholders.

Some bondholders (understandably) did not agree to this. There were allegations that the the administration threatened to use the power of the White House press corps to destroy their reputation. These reports were not confirmed, but Obama’s public statement on the matter was almost as disturbing:

“While many stakeholders made sacrifices and worked constructively, I have to tell you, some did not,” The president countered. “In particular, a group of investment firms and hedge funds decided to hold out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout. They were hoping that everybody else would make sacrifices and they would have to make none. Some demanded twice the return that other lenders were getting. I don’t stand with them.”

The President attempted to demean their honesty by calling them “investment firms and hedge funds,” code for greedy people that can’t be trusted. He then chides them for their refusal to sacrifice, and concludes that he “doesn’t stand with them.”

These secured bondholders were asked to sacrifice much more than unsecured shareholders, the UAW, were. The UAW was asked to sacrifice nearly nothing at all — but the bondholders were asked to take less than a third of their investment. And just to top it off, the President made a thinly veiled threat against them.

That’s the administration’s strategy: when someone does not follow their plan, they must be publicly scolded (for sometimes imaginary offenses), and threatened. Every member of the opposition must be addressed.

The number of groups or individuals that become targets for this strategy rise with each passing month. The administration at one time had enlisted insurance companies to support health care reform, promising more customers; but when opposition to the plan grew and they needed a scapegoat, the administration (along with Congressional Democrats) turned them into the villains. The administration sent letters to Arizona’s governor threatening to cut off stimulus funds after Senator Kyl questioned the plan’s effectiveness. Fox News is the latest target, with the administration refusing them access to “pay czar” Kenneth Feinberg, and David Axelrod telling other media outlets that they shouldn’t treat them as a news organization.

A Dangerous Precedent

The president is, unquestionably, the most powerful person in the country, and he should not wield the office with the intent to destroy individuals and groups for their political opposition. The president exists to rise above partisan squabbling, and lead us as a nation. The title is President of the United States, not President of Whoever Elected Me.

The president sets the tone in national debates. When the president pursues a policy of isolating and trashing his opponents, rather than honestly engaging them in debate, it is no wonder national debate devolves into the sorry excuse we have seen over the last few months.

Some have argued that his opponents have acted dishonestly, and thus do not deserve to be treated with respect. This posits a narrative where the president acted in good faith with his opposition for a period of time, was rebuffed, and changed strategy.

This isn’t the case. President Obama, just two days after his inauguration address, set the tone while meeting with Congressional Republicans over the stimulus plan. “I won” signaled a petty attitude, that he can do as he pleases and their view of his plan is just a waste of breath. That set the tone.

And it is a much different tone than he struck in the campaign. Then, he spoke of common ground and united effort; but now he trashes his opponents.

Republicans certainly have, though, acted dishonestly. Their “seniors’ health care bill of rights” attempted to gain support from seniors by guaranteeing them something no honest person can — that their Medicare benefits will remain the same. This was not only dishonest, but monumentally hypocritical. Medicare is effectively a single-payer health care system, and one that we cannot afford — and thus the Republican National Committee should be opposed to preserving it in its current form. But Michael Steele traded what little ethics the RNC had left after their drunken spending and corruption during the Bush administration for political support.

But there are Republicans who act honestly, just as there are Democrats that do as well. They do not agree with each other, but they can discuss issues with respect for each other, because they share a love for their country. Rather than impugn the motivations of anyone who opposes his agenda, the president should try to engage the forthright — those who disagree, but do so out of strong conviction. He should be trying to set respect as the parameters for the debate. This means that, rather than pursue those Republicans who may vote for his legislation, he should be pursuing those who strongly disagree. That’s how you change the temperature.

But instead, he has set the precedent for more partisan yelling and noise, for more attempts to score one for the team rather than improve the country.

We deserve better than that. Not just from this administration, but from every politician.