The truth about obstructionism

Less than two years into his presidency, a memo from a Democratic party official warned the president that he should be prepared to deal with daunting Republican opposition after they gained controlling seats in the midterm elections.

He opined that Republicans would view “weakening the president as (their) paramount goal.” He forecasted that they would launch as many congressional investigations as possible, in hopes of finding scandal in the administration or at least distracting its appointees.

They will block nominations and try to frustrate the president’s attempts to keep the executive branch functional. They will define “compromise” as the president’s accepting all of their demands and abandoning his own. If they do finally strike a deal, the president should be wary, for their deals would be “one-way streets.” Sound familiar? Certainly, many Barack Obama supporters will exclaim, “Yes, this sounds familiar! I told you so! Republicans are obstructionist! No president has ever had to deal with something like this!”

They will say it, and they will be wrong. The above dispatch was not sent to President Obama. It was, in fact, written by U.S. Bureau of Budget official James H. Rowe … to President Harry Truman. The year was 1946, after the Republicans gained control of the House and Senate during that year’s midterm elections. My point: The vitriol and partisanship we’ve witnessed since Obama’s election in 2008 is not new. In more recent memory, Republican hatred of and struggles against Bill Clinton are the stuff of political legend. And let’s face it — most Democrats didn’t have George W. Bush on their Christmas lists either.

To be sure, President Obama has faced some unique challenges. Joe Wilson’s outburst, certain elements of the Tea Party, and the continuing insanity of the birther movement should give us all pause. At some point, however, political analysts must step back and dispassionately discern where race ends and good old, nasty oppositional party politics begin. The system indeed presents challenges that were present before Truman and will remain well after Obama. However, 2012 is not 2008.

In 2008, Obama created an emotional fervor and stimulated America’s political imagination in a way that hadn’t been seen since Robert Kennedy in 1968. Obama was regarded as “different” and “inspiring” not simply because of the color of his skin. He was someone people across lines of race and class felt they could “believe in.” His ideas of and rhetoric surrounding “hope” and “change” were not new but somehow seemed more “real.”

He was the politician who hated politics, the black man who overcame race, and the potentially organic president from and for the people. He would prompt millions of young and disaffected people to vote for the first and maybe only time in their lives.

Four years later, the enthusiasm surrounding Obama has waned. He seems painfully normal (as was evidenced by his zombie-like performance at the first presidential debate in Denver, though he recovered well in New York and Florida) and (surprisingly for some) almost always “political.” He has proven to be a transactional politician, not a game-changing progressive — and his record makes him vulnerable. Despite his failures, he and his supporters argue he simply needs more time.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, they have painted themselves into a corner constructed by their Tea Party wing as they place their 2012 version of the Democrats’ 2004 John Kerry in the ring. Mitt Romney is a candidate Republicans never really wanted, but he has molded himself to their temporary liking. In this self-alteration, Romney has joined his party in approaches to immigration, the poor and women (among other things) that are downright disturbing.

Unfortunately, neither Obama nor Romney talk seriously about poverty (as John Edwards did), disproportionate incarceration, recidivism, empire, or other domestic and international ills that plague us. The hope of 2008 is lost; 2012 is about survival.

The Jones’ Prediction: Make no mistake, most 2008 Obama supporters are not going to trot out and vote for Mitt Romney. The question is, will some of them (especially the more progressive ones) vote at all? This is what will make this election closer than many people think. But in the end, Obama eeks out a victory. Hopefully this time around we’ll get real hope and change that many of Obama’s more fervent (though often politically infantile) supporters assure me we will.