President of the Disunited States

Evan Vucci/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. 

Could Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt have done a better job than Barack Obama in bringing together the fiercely polarized United States of 2009 to 2016? President Obama suggested in his State of the Union Address last night that they may well could have.

“It's one of the few regrets of my presidency,” Obama said, “that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide….”

I doubt it.

Neither Lincoln nor FDR was able to bridge the gaps that their own policies created. Their triumphs, rather, were to prevail over their opponents. Simply by winning the 1860 election, months before he took the presidential oath, Lincoln prompted South Carolina and six other Southern states to secede. His first inaugural address concluded with a plea to the South not to commence a civil war. He appealed to the “better angels of our nature.” The South responded by bombarding Fort Sumter. So much for Lincoln’s ability to bring the nation together through his powers of persuasion. He was surely the greatest and most profound orator ever to serve as president, but while Frederick Douglass acclaimed his second inaugural address as “a sacred effort,” John Wilkes Booth heard the speech and resolved to kill Lincoln then and there.

From 1933 through 1937, Roosevelt was able to persuade Congress to enact the most far-reaching social legislation the nation had ever known. He did not accomplish this by convincing mainstream Republicans to back these measures. (There were liberal Republicans in those days who did support them, but they were the exception.) Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, Glass Steagall, and a host of other structural reforms were enacted, and the Works Progress Administration funded, because an electorate that had moved left in response to the Great Depression sent to Washington the most lopsidedly Democratic congresses in the nation’s history. Republicans reviled Roosevelt, calling him “that man” rather than even mentioning his name. His political appeal crossed the partisan aisle only when he donned the mantle of wartime president—and then, only sometimes.

Barack Obama assumed the presidency at a time when the odds that he could successfully reach across the aisle were essentially nil, for three reasons. First, well before Obama even ran for the Senate, Republicans had come to question the very legitimacy of Democratic presidents. It’s easy to forget how intense and unyielding was the Republicans’ hatred of Bill Clinton, and how the Clinton-Hatred machine ginned up an impeachment that seems beyond fantastical today. By the time Obama took office, right-wing talk radio, Fox News, and a large segment of the Republican universe assumed as a matter of course that their mission was to destroy the Democratic president, whoever that turned out to be.

Second, Obama became the nation’s first African American president at the very moment when Americans began to understand that the nation was moving from majority white to majority non-white, and when the white working class was experiencing an unprecedented degree of downward mobility. Had he become president either earlier or later in American history, he might not have been the subject of so much fear and loathing, but coming when he did, he personified the very changes that millions of Americans dreaded. Nor did it help that many of the economic policies he proposed that might have bettered the lot of the white working class were stymied by the Republican Congress. Then again, the one signature measure that did better their lot—Obamacare—never succeeded in winning their support. That was indeed partly the president’s fault for failing to promote the program sufficiently or monitor its roll-out, but the incessant vilification of the program by right-wing media and politicos would surely have limited its appeal no matter what Obama did.

Third, by the time Obama became president, the GOP was already well on its way to becoming an increasingly insular, white nationalist, Southern-dominated party. Donald Trump may shock, but there isn’t anything surprising in his emergence as the party’s frontrunner. Ever since Richard Nixon embraced the Southern Strategy to win over George Wallace’s supporters in 1968 and 1972, the GOP has grown steadily whiter in composition and has made the white South its electoral anchor. In recent years, the South’s distinctive form of labor relations, rooted in its legacy of slavery—its opposition to worker rights, its embrace of right-to-work laws—has been embraced by Republican state governments in such states as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana, where such practices would have been anathema to earlier, more moderate Republican regimes. This conversion of Northern Republicans to more radical Southern Republican beliefs and practices was apparent by the 1990s in congressional Republicans’ choice of their leaders (Gingrich, Armey, DeLay, Lott—all right-wing Southerners) and their willingness to shutter the government in a failed attempt to scale back Medicare and Medicaid. Well before Obama became president, the Republicans’ radicalization and racialization was a fait accompli.

Could Lincoln have navigated this minefield? Could FDR? Of course not. There are periods in American history when fault lines divide the electorate and the parties end up on opposite sides. At times, only new quakes can bridge those divides, and only by creating new ones: In the 1920s, the nation was divided on ethno-religious lines, with immigrant-heavy, Catholic cities arrayed against a nativist Protestant rural America that saw cities increasingly ascendant and lashed back by restricting immigration and imposing Prohibition. The Democratic Party was split down the middle by this rift (that’s why it took its 1924 convention two weeks and 103 ballots to agree on a presidential nominee); what brought it together was the Depression, a political earthquake which divided the nation along lines of class rather than religion, and without which the Roosevelt coalition would not likely have emerged.

If his State of the Union Address demonstrated anything, it’s that Barack Obama has a keener appreciation of American exceptionalism than any of his critics. He understands that this nation uniquely preceded the formation of its people, that, as Robert Frost wrote, “the land was ours before we were the land’s,” that what sets us apart as Americans is precisely that we don’t share a homogeneity of race or faith or country of origin, that because of that, our unity is an achievement, not a given, and our divisions, particularly of race, a constant danger. His curse has been that he has governed at a time when those divisions ran high and limited his capacity to create a better nation—though as he pointed out in last night’s speech, he’s accomplished a good deal within those constraints.

No time for false modesty. Given the same circumstances, I don’t think Lincoln or Roosevelt could have done much better.

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