The President's Politics of Demonization

With his approval numbers dropping, the president gets mean.

This has been a bad year for President Obama. He lost the sequester PR battle, failed to pass gun control, stalled progress on immigration reform, and handled Syria ineptly. There's been tremendous problems implementing his signature health law, whose unpopularity is rising. Mr. Obama's job-approval numbers have been dropping, down in the Gallup poll to 46% now from 56% in January.

In the face of these setbacks, the president has reverted to form: dishonest and ad hominem attacks against his political opposition. To listen to his rhetoric, there are no honest differences with Republicans; his opponents are not wrong but wicked, motivated by vicious desires to hurt their fellow Americans and the country.

In an Aug. 9 press conference, Mr. Obama made an outrageous assertion that "The one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don't have health care." Over the past 10 days he has stepped up his attack.

At a White House event on Sept. 16, Mr. Obama said that the goal of Republicans is "making sure that 30 million people don't get health insurance." How far are they willing to go to achieve this? "They're willing to tank the entire economy," he said. The GOP, he said, "promises economic chaos" if it doesn't get its way. Thirty million, incidentally, is the number of people the Congressional Budget Office says will still lack health insurance even when ObamaCare is fully implemented.

Four days later in Missouri, the president alleged Republicans are fighting to "cut basic health-care services for tens of millions of seniors on Medicare" and "rob 25 million Americans of the chance to get health-care coverage." (Over the course of four days, Republicans apparently decided to rob five million fewer people of their health insurance.)

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Mr. Obama declared that Republican opposition to his budget and debt-ceiling requests is based in the GOP's desire to "actually plunge this country back into recession—all to deny the basic security of health care to millions of Americans." And at the Business Roundtable meeting on Wednesday a week ago, the president claimed the GOP's aims were even grander and more malevolent. Republicans want to default on the debt to "cause a world-wide financial crisis."

Mr. Obama also told the Roundtable CEOs that "You have never seen in the history of the United States . . . the threat of not raising the debt ceiling being used to extort a president or a governing party." Actually, we have.

In March 2006, then Sen. Obama wanted to defund the Iraq war but lacked the votes to do this directly. So he tried the indirect route by rallying Senate Democrats to reject Mr. Bush's debt-ceiling increase. Imagine the howls if Mr. Bush had described Mr. Obama's action as a deliberate effort to default, plunge America into recession, and cause a world-wide crisis?

In his attacks, Mr. Obama isn't saying a global financial catastrophe, painful recession, and people losing health coverage are possible results of Republican policies. He's saying these are the GOP's goals: Republicans simply relish inflicting hardship on fellow Americans.

This kind of reckless rhetoric would be problematic from any president. It's doubly disturbing from one who ran vowing, as he did in his "A More Perfect Union" speech in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008, to end politics that "breeds division and conflict and cynicism."

"If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from," Mr. Obama said in accepting the Democratic nomination in 2008. Since then, no man has done more to paint his opponents as those whom other Americans should run from.

In ascribing illegitimate intentions to those who oppose his policies, Mr. Obama may have internalized Saul Alinsky's counsel for community organizers in "Rules for Radicals" that "One acts decisively only in the conviction that all the angels are on one side and all the devils on the other." It is certainly consistent with the image Mr. Obama projects on Republicans. No president has so regularly questioned the motives of his political opposition.

When it comes to governing, Mr. Obama may be epically inept. But give the president his due: When it comes to political slander and polarization, he belongs in a class all his own.

A version of this article appeared September 26, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The President's Politics of Demonization and online at WSJ.com.