Interpreting Some Political Rhetoric

Perhaps its not as new as I think it is, but it seems to me that the rhetoric of this political season is particularly sharp and angry.

The last couple years have seen a serious amount of hostility between members of the two parties in Washington and the Republican platform this year seems fairly blatantly to be simply an anti-Obama platform.

I have heard a lot of rhetoric lately about “absentee leadership” from speakers at the GOP Convention and over the campaign season have heard Obama described as “the most dangerous president we have ever had” by numerous of the RNC candidates, including the newly crowned nominee.

What is all this rhetoric about?  Why is this president, whose policies a majority of Americans back and who inspired a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement when he was first elected, viewed by his opponents as so belligerently dangerous and divisive?  Why has a reactionary wing of the Republican Party become so strong in the last couple of years that it is able, seemingly, to dominate the RNC agenda?  What’s going on?

My theory is that this has a lot to do with Obama’s personality.

Obama has frequently been described as a “loner” or “isolated” or, in less negative terms, as an introvert.

I think as a consequence of his introversion he has a much different style of leadership than many previous Presidents.

Rather than courting members of Congress socially Obama opts to lead through intellectual persuasion.

Rather than meeting constantly with key leaders of major special interests groups to keep everybody happy, my sense is that Obama relies on a small and relatively closed group of close advisers.

In other words, my guess is that access to the White House in this administration has significantly diminished from the amount of access seen in previous administrations.  And in a political culture where decisions are made as frequently at cocktail parties as they are in committee meetings, this diminished access has severely limited Obama’s ability to grease the gears that keep things moving in Washington.  I think this has had several results:

First, Republicans and Democrats have had a much harder time working together during this administration than in previous ones.  This almost certainly has to do with Republicans feeling shut out of power and Democrats feeling as if they don’t have clear directions from their leadership because few of them have access to their party leader.  The result is Republicans refusing to budge on key issues and Democrats making sloppy political maneuvers that make it easier for the Republicans to keep up this standoff.  Which then results in a reinforced cycle of anger and suspicion and causes much of the Obama agenda to get stalled out, left untouched, or seemingly surrendered to Republican demands.

Second, special interest groups that primarily back the RNC have felt especially threatened by this administration because of their lack of access to the White House.  Not even being given a false sense that they are influencing the administration’s decisions and policies, they trumpet end of the world scenarios to their backers which has resulted in a persistent firing up of the Republican base with anti-Obama rhetoric.  The rise of the tea-party has more to do, I think, with perceived fears about what Obama might do than with actual anger at what he has done (see the rhetoric of Newt Gingrich about the dangers of an Obama second term, for instance).

Third, special interest groups that primarily back Democrats have felt a lack of love from the White House, resulting in a diminished enthusiasm on the part of the Democratic base for their own leader.  The sense I get is that while most Democrats can’t fathom supporting Romney in this election, they just aren’t as excited about Obama this time around.

This is all interesting for the way it demonstrates something very important about the culture of Washington, reinforcing in my mind at least a sense that Washington politics operates as if it were a gigantic social game.

What we are seeing right now is the reaction of the Washington insiders to an outsider, someone who doesn’t play the game the same way they do.

The reaction seems to be, on a whole, very hostile even when the majority of Americans agree with the ideas Obama represents.

What we are discovering is that, unsurprisingly, Washington politics does not operate any more at the level of ideas but instead at the level of self-interest, with one of the key pieces of that self-interest being the social esteem one gets from having personal access to the President of the United States.

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3 thoughts on “Interpreting Some Political Rhetoric

  1. I agree with a lot of what you have said, but I think it is a lot more about ideology than has been explored here. It may be that a majority of the country agrees with President Obama’s policies. However, the other half passionately disagree with his policies. These sides fundamentally disagree on the role and size of government, nationalized healthcare, national debt, the place of religion (specifically Christianity) in the public square, the bailouts, taxation, abortion, gay marriage, gun rights, etc., etc. These are fundamental ideological disagreements that can’t be reconciled. On top of this there is the terrible state of the economy and joblessness that is driving people crazy. It has become an embittered relationship that is losing all pretext of civility. We are in the exact same position we were in when George W. was president, except that the roles are reversed. All the hatred and vitriol was coming from the Democrats and the media toward Bush then. Now it is directed from the Republicans to Obama.

    The anger is the result of feeling powerless. The other half did not want socialized medicine, and is afraid that it will be a disaster. They were the “losers” of an epic battle and now they are deeply dissatisfied. The tea party is more extreme than the more “moderate” Republicans, but for the most part they hold the same views, only more passionately.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I think you are certainly right about ideological differences being at play between the two parties, which has always been the case. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems to me that this time around the rhetoric and the anger is particularly fierce (even more so than when Bush was up for reelection). What I’m proposing in this post is that the personality difference between Obama and previous presidents may be a contributing factor to that (among many other factors).

      In case your interested, I just posted a follow-up on this which links to an article and some videos of an interview with the President which seem to suggest something similar to what I’m saying. You can see the new post here.

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