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The Obama Presidency: A Rorschach Test for National Unity?

3 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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