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The Obama Presidency: A Rorschach Test for National Unity?

4 years ago
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's goal is a one-term President Barack Obama. House Minority Leader (for now) John Boehner says now "is not a time for compromise." Did the president ever really think he had a chance with those guys? Obama's use of the word "enemies" to describe policy foes during an interview with Univision radio didn't help his own call for bi-partisanship, though the resulting GOP outrage was conspicuously missing when protest signs labeled the president of the United States a Communist witch doctor.
You may think Barack Obama is moving too fast or too slow, leaning too far to the right or left, but why must that make him a Kenyan Socialist? (Was that e-mail with the president as pimp and first lady as prostitute really necessary, New York state gubernatorial contender Carl Paladino?) Billboards sink lower, with one in Grand Junction, Colo., depicting a cartoon president as a terrorist, gangster, Mexican bandit and gay man, in a dizzying mix of offensive stereotypes. As my colleague Sandra Fish writes, this was not a year of taking the high and positive road.
Rep. Joe Wilson can disrespect Obama; the president is just a man. But when he shouts "You lie" on the floor of Congress he is disrespecting the rules of the House. (Since taxes pay for it, should that be "our" House?) The culture of disrespect seeps into everyday life, where loud voices and bullies rule. When grown-ups try to lecture the kids, no wonder they don't listen.
The thing that has nagged at me this long, contentious political season is not the viciousness of the political attacks. Though big money allows a constant barrage of nonstop TV ads, the barely true sniping is nothing new. You can tune out the noise if you try. It's the ease and speed that politics has turned personal, without that pause for those moments of collective national pride and unity.
Remember how parents used to warn their bickering brood to keep a lid on it in public, the better to put on a united front? After all, there's no need to let onlookers know family drama. You would think that Americans who happen to have different views of what kind of country this is should be and would be able to agree on the basic patriotism of the American on the other side.
Instead, agreeing to disagree is not an option. Opponents are heathens or fundamentalists, Socialists or the Taliban, diabolically sinister and just plain evil.
"Now, now," I want to say. "China is watching."
I've had people ask how I could stand to spend so much time covering tea party events, as though I might catch something. And at a GOP rally, one emotional participant said she could "spit" in the president's face. I wouldn't think to do that if a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan were standing in front of me.
The pummeling to the point of exhaustion continues and spreads. We disrespect our leaders, and each other. You know it's gotten bad when comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (and a National Mall full of friends) don't find it funny anymore.
Americans with nothing but a desire to serve have gotten caught in the cross-fire. Just ask Shirley Sherrod, ground up in the media mill for describing – in a speech that defied sound-bite treatment -- a thoughtful conversion to a belief in common humanity.
Leaders who should know better have not disavowed the litany; many, in fact, have joined in. When Newt Gingrich, possibly positioning himself for a 2012 presidential run, implies that Obama is not like the rest of us, I'm not sure what "us" he's talking about.
Candidates run from questions and toward sympathetic press outlets, the better to rant with impunity.
You'd think Americans have no sense of history -- or sense, period. When I'm overwhelmed by the cacophony of the present, it's reassuring to study the past, our collective past.
My book club is reading "The Warmth of Other Suns," Isabel Wilkerson's narrative of the great migration of African-Americans from the South to points North, West and Midwest. They were immigrants in their own country, fleeing government-sponsored terrorism for a better life that often promised little more than the life they left. If they had not taken that chance, the country would not have grown as strong as it has. But along with being inspired by their unimaginable journey, I could not help but think of the home-grown innovation that never flourished because of the mindless hate that destroyed so many lives and dreams. That's what happens when we fight amongst ourselves – we all lose.
It's why I look for slivers of joy in the progress we've made.
Recently, I watched the helicopter of the president of the United States touch down on the White House lawn. He then headed into a meeting with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. A press aide guided me into the West Wing office of Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. On the way I passed a painting of George Washington, America's first president, crossing the Delaware. Except for Washington, the rest of the people in the story are African-American. Rice, a Republican who served in the administration of President George W. Bush, certainly has political differences with the man who succeeded her boss. But I think she could appreciate that, policy differences aside, what has happened in this country's history is indeed progress. In her new book, "Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family," she tells of growing up in segregated Birmingham, Ala., where she played with a girl who would fall victim to a horrific 1963 church bombing. It wasn't that long ago. My great-grandmother was 6 years old when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
To recall those memories is not dwelling on the bad. It's acknowledging the wonder of a country that has made mistakes but is trying – and succeeding more often than not – in being exceptional, and exceptionally open. It pains me to see minds closing over differences blown up to be insurmountable.
It's a matter of retaining the sense of pride, something I felt when my son was named a presidential scholar and I tagged along as a completely superfluous parent. The United States Marine Band -- America's oldest continuously active professional musical organization – played and President George W. Bush greeted selected scholars and artists from every state. That day was about the young men and women being honored for their studies and service. I didn't do a spot check for political affiliation.
"Part of what makes this country great is our freedom of speech," Jarrett told me when talking about how heated the political dialogue has become. That's true, of course. But as I think of what I've heard and seen in this campaign season, I realize that because you can say anything, doesn't mean you should, not when it demeans and demonizes.
When I walked through the halls of the White House, I again thought of Washington. This slave-holding president -- my Founding Father, too – was impressed by the bravery of black soldiers in the Revolutionary War; he freed his slaves in his will. Washington made his own journey in just one lifetime. Though I'm sure a President Barack Obama would have been beyond his imagination, I'm just as certain that Washington would be proud of the American system that made him possible – even if he didn't like the health-care reform package.

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I would agree that the public comments and debate on the President's leadership and his policies has been somewhat ugly and rough. However, this article leans to one side. If the president wanted to work together with Congress and to what was best for this country why did he not try to comprimise on important issues-such as health care. Not one Republican supported this bill which was rammed down the throats of Americans. It was obvious that with a Senate and House Democratic majority he had no need or desire to compromise. I believe his response to the lack of talking with Republicans about this bill was "Well, there
ARE consequences to elections." The November elections changed this situation and I honestly hope and pray that both sides with come together and do what is best for this country. BOTH sides need to be civil, show proper respect for each other, and do what is best for us ALL-but don't put all the blame on one side.

December 29 2010 at 8:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This all started in the 1960's when the Press started calling the President "Mr. Nixon". There was a time we old timers remember, a president, and all ex-presidents, were respected by the title "Mr. President". But all respect for the office has been trashed, first by the left, then the Press, and now by everyone.

November 05 2010 at 10:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Funny, when Bush was disrespected and called all sorts of horrible names, and mocked in effigy, etc. no one on the left seemed to care or seemed to find it a problem of disrespect or hate. I guess it's only when it's a president they voted for that they care, and that's why this article is somewhat hypocritical. Until both sides of the aisle agree that no sitting president should be disrespected in such vulgar and unfair ways, things won't change. I would hope, that in the future, Ms. Curtis will care just as much if this happens to a president who she disagrees with.

November 05 2010 at 6:18 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to rambolrod's comment
WD Simmons

How many times was President Bush called the N-word. Can't hear you...did you say 0. Was he told to go back to Afric? Was he called a terrorist? Don't even bother to comoare to you. When it goes beyond criticism to attacking one' race, culture or religion Taht is beyond the pale. Those who can't differentiate between the to show the worst kind of ignorance.

November 26 2010 at 11:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's just a continuation of the downward spiral...Bush was treated much worse but of course there is more time so President Obama's treatment may actually exceed how Bush was treated...and before Bush, we had Clinton and both he and his wife were demonized.

November 03 2010 at 10:48 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

So I guess it's only alright/ acceptable for DEMS to rag on REPUBS. How many times was Bush called Hitler? Come on, these stories get older and older as the press keeps dragging them out. Let's be real, this president, my president is dragging us kicking and screaming down the wrong path. He wasn't sent to Washington to bankrupt the country. Agree or disagree with his and his parties policies, the proof is there. It didn't work under FDR and it won't work with BO. It's perfectly fine if you want to tow the party line. The press has a strong tendency to do that. Wonder if that has anything to do with your overall dropping circulation and lack of readership as time travels on. Food for thought?

November 02 2010 at 8:58 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Mary, I would like to reach out to achieve policies that improved employment opportunities rather than endlessly extending enslaving unemployment payments using money borrowed form overseas. I would like to see a smaller Federal superstructure that consumed fewer public resources, leaving more for the people. I long for an educational system that restrains administrative costs and nurtures achievement and a thirst for learning rather than consuming a greater cost per student than any other in the world while yielding poor results. Will you join me?

November 02 2010 at 6:21 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The Republicans are mad as hell because they thought that they had things locked up for many years, they were wrong, the Democrats are mad as hell because they did not get what they wanted. The Tea Party people are just mad. We seem to have lost sight of our goals and the reason for government. Everyone is pandering to the lowest common denominator. Whoever wins this election, and I mean individuals not any political party, must start by doing what is best for America regardless of what is popular. We need candidates for "Profiles in Courage", not more demagogues.

November 02 2010 at 12:49 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
John Vilvens

Liberals now stand up and call what people are doing and saying about Obama is wrong. Look back at the same people when Bush was in office. It was alright to say or call him anything. You reap what you sow, for years Bush was abused by liberal now Obama reaps what you sowed.

November 02 2010 at 12:09 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply

This column is exactly why we are so divided. The musings are of a black liberal who suddenly see's a "hard edge" to American politics. The savage treatment of GW Bush, the mocking of Reagan and the visceral hatred of Nixon apparently have gone unnoticed. The primary debate in this country has been marinating since the mid 60's and is now simple and divisive. The Left wnats to fund and project a massive central government onto the populace. They believe this will acheive the best results. {By the way keep an eye out for Bernie Sanders/ Tom Harkin 401K confiscation proposal} The Right not only disagrees, but finds it repugnant and a form of soft tyranny. Only victory by one side or the other will resolve this.

November 02 2010 at 9:07 AM Report abuse +12 rate up rate down Reply

As a lower-middle class white male I can tell you what Newt Gingrich meant by "not like us". He meant not white and not willing to sell his soul to the highest bidder like Newt himself would be. When the right-wing pundits screamed "Obama is a racist", it meant that they couldn't stand the thought of a black President. When conservative pundits warned us that Obama wanted to "put whites in concentration camps" it meant that those same pundits would just love to put all minorities in concentration camps. It's typical of the arrogant and the self-absorbed to accuse their enemies of what they are thinking. It is sad but, far too often the case.

November 02 2010 at 3:46 AM Report abuse -12 rate up rate down Reply


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