From time to time President Obama sounds a theme of unity and teamwork. He says in a speech that we all have to pull together to solve our problems. We’re all Americans, and we’ll get out of trouble if we work as one. We’ll succeed if we stop working against each other.
Why does this encouragement sound so thin? How did a president whose rhetoric resonated so effectively during his campaign get so out of touch? Why does he think a theme of unity would help him lead now?
Here’s the problem, one that I don’t think he recognizes. In January 2010, Massachusetts elected Scott Brown to the U. S. Senate. A principal campaign point was that he would be the forty-first vote against the health care reform bill soon to come before the Senate. He won by a large margin in the state, and received much support outside the state. His election in a Democratic state demonstrated that many voters opposed enactment of the health bill.
Obama’s gave himself a little time to think about his response to the Massachusetts result. He had to consider how he and congressional leaders would handle the health bill in 2010. To help him decide, he met with Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, to make plans. They decided they would push the health bill through Congress, no matter what.
That was that. Some presidents can continue to lead the entire nation even though they make a decision in favor of their party’s interest. Some political circumstances allow a president some latitude that way. The president can stand with his party on a controversial program without sacrificing his ability to lead the entire country.
Not this time. Pelosi had already shown that she was not interested in leading the entire House of Representatives, even though that is the Speaker’s job. She only looked after the people and priorities of the Democratic party, period.
President Obama followed her example. When he cleared her to work with Harry Reid on a way to pass the health bill in both houses of Congress, he cleared away his chances for bipartisan leadership during the rest of his term. The bill was too important, the rancor too great, for his decision to have any other effect. You’ll always have conflict in politics, but the health bill was different because it was both bad legislation and not clearly constitutional. When you enact a bill like that underneath a cloud of partisan chicanery, you give up the benefit of a loyal opposition.
Now, after the Democratic disaster in the November midterms, Obama acts as if the health care denouement never happened. He speaks as if he still commands some loyalty among people he betrayed. You cannot do what he did, you cannot tell Pelosi to practice her devious, secretive tactics, and still try to inspire unity among people who used to regard you as their leader even if they opposed your policies. That’s the role the president takes: leader of all the American people.
After you endorse a legislative process that favors only your own party, you can dispense with the unity rhetoric. Why do you need it, anyway? No matter how much you might want to lead all the people, the people no longer want you.