Think back eight years, when an eloquent young man ran for president promising to rectify U.S. politics and unite the nation. “I don’t want to pit Red America against Blue America,” Barack Obama said in Des Moines in November 2007.
This was a constant theme of Mr. Obama’s first campaign. “We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism,” he declared in Philadelphia in March 2008. “Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’ ” Later that year, in his victory speech at Chicago’s Grant Park, he urged: “Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.”
Those promises of unity, respect and comity have been long discarded. Mr. Obama is the most polarizing president in history, according to Gallup. That is partially due to the times in which we live. But much of it is the fault of Mr. Obama’s confrontational style.
Take the June 12 House Democratic Caucus, as the president urged passage of a bill to grant him trade-promotion authority, the guarantee that Congress will vote, up or down, on any trade agreement he negotiates. Mr. Obama’s six predecessors enjoyed “fast-track” authority, which expired in 2007.
The president could have reminded his fellow Democrats of their party’s long commitment to free trade. He could have explained how commerce helps raise millions around the globe out of poverty, expands the range of freedom and security, and makes the U.S. more prosperous. Instead he warned Democrats to “play it straight,” by which he meant that they should stop playing games. The president has routinely questioned the motives of Republican members of Congress, and now he had given his own side a mild version of this scolding. Democrats didn’t like it.
“Basically, the president tried to both guilt people and then impugn their integrity,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D., Ore.) told the Washington Post. Democrats revolted, stalling the measure and forcing Republican leaders in the House and Senate to scramble to rescue the legislation.
Then there was the president’s response to the June 17 massacre of nine black South Carolinians at a Bible study by a young white racist. If ever there were a moment when the country needed to be united by the eloquent Barack Obama of 2008, that was it.
His initial statement the following morning hit a few grace notes, but he mostly lamented the lack of progress in passing his gun-control agenda, which he blamed on “the politics of this town.” The next day in a speech at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the president devoted most of his time to gun control. In neither instance did he suggest a single measure that would have prevented the massacre or, for that matter, that would stop the gun violence plaguing cities like Chicago, which already have strict gun control. Instead he tried to make the Charleston shooting fit his pre-existing narrative: that we must “shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”
In contrast were the actions of the people of Charleston, especially the families of the slain. In their grief, they responded during the accused murderer’s bail hearing with grace and forgiveness. They are ordinary people touched by loss beyond comprehension. Yet sustained by their faith, determined to be instruments of reconciliation, they moved the nation.
Then in a podcast with a comedian released this week, Mr. Obama slandered America, claiming that discrimination is “still part of our DNA.” What made headlines was the president’s language: “Racism, we are not cured of it,” he said. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public.” Conservative writer Deneen Borelli was correct when on Fox News she called the comments “a grand distraction” that is “further dividing our country.”
Mr. Obama has lost—at least temporarily and perhaps permanently—the ability to describe what we should aspire to as a nation. Rather than appealing to the better angels of our nature, the president employs ad hominem attacks against those who disagree with him, complains about the failure of his political agenda, and suggests that America has an almost genetic inclination toward racism.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley does not have Mr. Obama’s reputation for eloquence, but he would be wise to look to her example before he speaks Friday in Charleston at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney. There was a graciousness and a commitment to unify in Ms. Haley’s words and actions this week. Many Americans once associated those traits with Barack Obama, and would like to do so again.
A version of this article appeared June 25, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Now Is The Time To Unite, Mr. President and online at WSJ.com.