'I'm itching for a fight on a whole range of issues." President Barack Obama made that threat last week as Congress moved to pass his bipartisan tax-cut compromise. Why was Mr. Obama so pugilistic?
It was partly to reassure unhappy Democratic liberals, especially bitter Democratic congressmen. Many are from gerrymandered districts where little news about the midterm elections has apparently penetrated.
But a scorched-earth policy doesn't make sense for the Obama White House. Independents voted Republican last month by a 59% to 38% margin not because they thought Mr. Obama too civil, his course too centrist, and his bipartisanship too energetic. In fact, they were sick of the administration's direction and tone. The increased number of Republicans in Congress next year will stop Mr. Obama's leftward policy march, whether he likes it or not. But only he can change his manner of speaking.
In his first two White House years, Mr. Obama has seemed incapable of constructing a positive narrative. Instead, he has appeared hard-wired to justify his policy choices by blaming savage evildoers for monstrous wrongs.
Mr. Obama fell into this habit early. He kicked off his drive to pass a stimulus on Jan. 8, 2009 by attacking the "profound irresponsibility that stretched from corporate boardrooms to . . . Washington." In December of that year, during a "60 Minutes" interview, he lashed out at bankers making multimillion-dollar bonuses, saying "I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat-cat bankers on Wall Street."
His push for health-care reform was marked by frequent attacks on insurance companies. He depicted them as gluttonous profit-seekers intent on sticking it to their customers. He went after them with loaded words: They "discriminated," "rationed care . . . denied coverage" and were "bureaucrats getting between you and your doctor."
After his bill passed, the president kept it up. "This is no secret," Mr. Obama said in March. Health insurers are "telling their investors this: We are in the money; we are going to keep on making big profits even though a lot of folks are going to be put under hardship." Even physicians found themselves in Mr. Obama's crosshairs for ordering needless but costly tests just to enrich themselves.
Was this necessary? Mr. Obama could have fashioned a case that emphasized the good that would come from his proposals, but instead he spewed venom on those he decided were his enemies.
This attitude has infected the president's speeches on the rest of his agenda. New financial regulations were needed because of those "fat-cat bankers." High mileage standards for cars were necessary because otherwise "everybody drives Hummers." High-income earners deserved higher taxes because "the playing field" has been "tilted so far in favor of the few." Why has it been so hard for Mr. Obama to fashion a positive call to action, without all these bogeymen and villains possessing his teleprompter?
He seems unaware that his attacks are creating a vast army of people who feel personally assaulted by him. Rather than being silenced by his assaults, they have been driven to action.
For example, Mr. Obama's health-care reform continues to drop in the polls. This week's ABC/Washington Post survey shows support at the lowest level to date, 43%, with opposition at 52%. Doctors, nurses, health-care professionals, hospital workers, drug-company employees and ordinary people who labor in the insurance industry are making their voices heard and are shifting opinion among those they can personally influence. Talk about payback: Mr. Obama has energized them, in part, by demonizing them.
Americans have come to expect the country's chief executive to set the tone for our nation's political discourse. But Mr. Obama's tenor has been worthy of a party press secretary, not the occupant of the Oval Office.
The rhetoric is predictable and embarrassing. Mr. Obama rarely surprises—except to sink further into argument and anger. He constantly uses his words to agitate, provoke and divide rather than to inspire and unite as he often did in his campaign. His call in his inaugural speech "to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and . . . the recriminations" is now at odds with his attack-dog tone. He has gone from post-partisan candidate to most partisan president.
In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln spoke of his desire to appeal to "the better angels of our nature." It's a goal Mr. Obama should emulate. The likelihood of him again enjoying the support of independents and winning bipartisan support in Congress may depend upon his ability to do so.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, December 16, 2010.