The former president has given up any pretence of a post-partisan USA
There was once a time when Barack Obama dreamt of leading a post-racial, post-partisan America. Back in 2004, the then Senate candidate famously declared: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is a United States of America.” This was no doubt a sincerely held belief, and one that he ran with during his presidential run three years later: “I don’t want to pit red America against blue America. I want to be the president of the United States of America.”
Then, reality intervened. Obama left office as the most polarising president in history (before the arrival of you-know-who), with virtually all of his major achievements coming from party-line votes or executive actions. By his own admission, he failed: “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.”
Now it seems as though the 44th president has finally cast off any pretence that there is a United States of America (in the symbolic or cultural sense). Stumping for two Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey this weekend, the forty-fourth president sounded more like a flame-throwing populist than the austere president he once was. “We don’t have time to be wasted on these phoney trumped-up culture wars, this fake outrage, the right-wing media’s pedals to juice their ratings.” He continued: “You’ve [Republicans] started to fabricate lies and conspiracies about the last election — the one you didn’t win. That’s not how democracy is supposed to work”.
“You’re trying to rig elections … when that doesn’t work, you start fabricating lies & conspiracy theories about the last election, the one that you didn’t win.”
— Obama calls out GOP for restrictive voting laws while campaigning for VA gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe. pic.twitter.com/4NIB2wAmeO
— The Recount (@therecount) October 24, 2021
These were uncharacteristically strident — and tribal — remarks from a president who has always prided himself on restraint. Indeed, it took him four years to directly criticise his successor, who wasn’t exactly a friend of the Obama administration. But this weekend showed a different side of the former president, one that accused Republicans of trying to rig elections:
Why is this significant? Because it comes at a time when red and blue America has never been more divided. Not only does each side now have their own anthem, flag and founding date, but talk of a civil war along with discussions of ‘national divorce’ have become a part of American discourse. As extreme as that may sound, a recent survey by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia found that about 50% of Donald Trump voters and 40% of Joe Biden voters agreed to some extent that the country should split up, with either red or blue states seceding.
We shouldn’t read too much into two speeches. But the fact that even Obama has succumbed to the pull of partisan politics is a worrying harbinger of things to come.