The president came to Washington thinking he could change Washington, make it better, unite it and the nation. He was wrong. As he ascended, the tone of political discourse descended, as much because of who he was as what he did.
When Obama introduced Joe Biden as his vice-presidential running mate in Springfield, Ill., he expressed his confidence that Biden could “help me turn the page on the ugly partisanship in Washington, so we can bring Democrats and Republicans together to pass an agenda that works for the American people.”
In his first Inaugural Address, Obama said:
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. 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. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”
He underestimated the degree to which his very presence for some would feel more like a thorn than a salve. The president seemed to think that winning was the thing. It wasn’t. Stamina was the thing. The ability to nurse a grievance was the thing.
The president’s first “I won” moment came shortly after his inauguration. It was in an hourlong, bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders about the stimulus package. ABC News reported an exchange the president had with Eric Cantor this way:
“Obama told Cantor this morning that ‘on some of these issues we’re just going to have ideological differences.’ The president added, ‘I won. So I think on that one, I trump you.’ ”
Then, in a 2010 meeting with members of Congress about the Affordable Care Act, a visibly agitated president quipped to John McCain (who was raising concerns about the bill): “We’re not campaigning anymore. The election is over.”
And in 2013, appearing even more agitated following the government shutdown, the president chastised his opponents across the aisle: “You don’t like a particular policy or a particular president? Then argue for your position. Go out there and win an election.”
This idea that Republicans would honor the fact that he was elected — twice — almost seems quaint. It angered; it didn’t assuage.
And in addition to some people being ideologically opposed to Democratic principles in general, others are endlessly irritated by a personal attitude and persona that seem impervious to chastisement or humbling.
Even the president himself has come around to giving voice to this in public. Last year he told The New York Times: “There’s not an action that I take that you don’t have some folks in Congress who say that I’m usurping my authority. Some of those folks think I usurp my authority by having the gall to win the presidency.”
Gall here is an interesting word, and a purposeful one I think. It is in line with all the other adjectives used to describe this president’s not kowtowing and supplicating himself before traditional power structures.