The Political Divide: Obama’s final SOTU

President Obama gave the final State of the Union address of his presidency last night. It was, I thought, one of his finest speeches, equal measure inspirational and aspirational, thoughtful and wise and, to the extent that this is possible, conciliatory. I was moved, for example, when the President said this:

It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office. had an interesting article today about this very issue, the political divide, the hostile rhetorical war between Republicans and Democrats that the President referred to last night. And that we saw, clearly, in the unhappy faces of the Republicans the cameras kept cutting to. (Poor Paul Ryan, BTW, stuck up there where we could see him react, or not react, to the President’s speech). We are, all of us, left and right, patriots. We are all Americans. When I see polling data that suggests that Democrats wouldn’t be happy if their children married Republicans and vice-versa, well, that’s a big concern. So Ezra Klein, at Vox, dug into the differences between the two parties:

I was caught off guard by how specific and personal Democratic voters’ issues tended to be. One woman told me she had lost a job because she had to take care of a sick relative and wanted paid family leave. . . .

“We’re talking about bread-and-butter issues,” Phyllis Thede, an Iowa state representative backing Clinton, told me when I asked about her constituents’ top concerns.

By contrast, Republican voters tend to be excited by more abstract issues: One of the most common answers I get from Cruz voters when I ask about their leading concern is “the Constitution. . . .”

Sarlin’s observations mirror interesting research from Matthew Grossmann and David Hopkins about how Republicans and Democrats differ. Their main finding is that Democrats are motivated by specific policy deliverables while Republicans are motivated by broader philosophical principles.

This resonated with me, and so I went on Facebook, posted the article, and asked my conservative friends what they thought of it. I was gratified to see that they tended to agree with it.

For one thing, it helps explain something I have never understood. When I watch the Republican presidential candidates debate and campaign, one thing that unifies them is their detestation of President Obama. “The failed policies of President Obama” is a constant. Of course, to some extent, that’s inevitable. It’s not like Barack Obama didn’t talk pretty constantly about ‘the failed policies of the Bush administration.’ But the rhetoric on the right suggests that, under President Obama, America is quickly becoming a dystopic hellscape, with a ruined economy, starving children, and Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron driving a huge armored truck really fast over a bleak desert.

It just ain’t so. In fact, it’s pretty silly. I mean, just look around. The United States remains a prosperous nation. Of course, we have problems; there are issues we need to solve. But President Obama has done a reasonably good job in solving actual, real problems. And in the State of the Union, as he listed actual, genuine accomplishments of his administration, the list was both factually accurate and impressive.

When I talk to my conservative friends, of course, they tend to downplay the significance of those achievements. You talk about a booming economy, and they say, ‘yes, but the deficit.’ And in fact, the national debt is large, and that’s a genuine area of concern. But the deficit has been greatly reduced during Obama’s Presidency, and it’s not like the the debt is actually doing damage to the economy. If the debt were harmful, we’d see it first in the inflation rate, which remains low.

But I’m starting to realize, an opposition to debt is a moral principle. It’s not whether or not the debt is actually slowing our economic growth. In fact, it isn’t. But it’s wrong anyway, as a matter of principle.

And that’s why they oppose Obama. It’s not because the country is falling into wrack and ruin. It isn’t. It’s because they seem him as a socialist, and see his policies as moving our country closer to socialism. And that’s what they oppose, as a matter of principle.

That’s why they hate Obamacare. I certainly agree that the ACA is a flawed policy. Ordinarily, when an important piece of legislation passes, and is shown to have actual, fixable problems, Congress proposes and passes legislation to fix things. But to Republicans, Obamacare is a step towards socialized medicine. Which they despise, as a matter of principle. So they don’t want to fix it; they want it gone. And so they downplay the actual good it’s done. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the fight against socialism.

One of my conservative friends mentioned Bernie Sanders as part of this conversation. He opposes Sanders, of course, because Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist. But he feels like he gets him; he sees him much more favorably than he sees Hillary Clinton, who he sees as unprincipled. Whereas, I prefer Hillary. I think she’s a pragmatist, and I think she’ll get things done. I don’t really think Bernie Sanders, if elected, would be all that effective.

Anyway, the President’s speech was inspiring, and also depressing. He outlined a legislative program which I largely favor. Which is unlikely to ever get enacted. And we’re heading into what is likely to be an ugly political season. And that’s also depressing to contemplate.



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