"I don't want to pit red America against blue America," Obama assured an enthusiastic Iowa audience in November 2007. "I want to be the president of the United States of America." One reason he was running for the White House, he told Boston Globe editors and reporters in January 2008, was to repair a political system that had gotten "stuck in this deeply polarized pattern." He promised a new tone: "I'm not going to demonize you because you disagree with me… I don't think the Democrats have a monopoly on wisdom." In a vaunted speech about race that spring -- a speech titled "A More Perfect Union" -- Obama offered Americans a choice: "We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism…. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say: 'Not this time.'"
Time and again, Obama promised what Nixon promised: to bring Americans together. That pledge -- less animosity and partisanship, more cooperation and goodwill -- went to the essence of his candidacy. And on the night of his election, before a vast crowd in Chicago's Grant Park, he underscored it: "Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long."
Yet far from resisting that temptation, Obama has rarely bypassed any chance to indulge it. The would-be uniter whips up envy and resentment, demonizing those who disagree with him, and aggravating the nation's racial, class, and party tensions.
Granted, Obama has faced fierce political opposition. And the GOP is not without its cynics and zealots. Yet presidents have a unique role in American life; the tone they set affects the whole political culture. That is what makes it so unfortunate that the candidate who embodied hope and bipartisan civility is just a memory now. In his place we have a president who summarizes the Republicans' economic plan as: "Let's have dirtier air, dirtier water, less people with health insurance." The candidate who understood that his party had no monopoly on wisdom now smears those whose agenda differs from his for their "thinly veiled social Darwinism" that is "antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity."
From urging Latino voters to "punish our enemies and … reward our friends" to snidely telling voters "I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth" to rebuking the Cambridge police to bashing insurance and oil companies, Obama has repeatedly taken the low road. He has widened the fissures he promised to close, and lowered the political tone he promised to elevate. With Nixonian bile, he fans the flames of grievance. Nixon was re-elected; maybe Obama will be too. But Americans who imagined in 2008 that they were voting for a healer-in-chief aren't likely to make that mistake again.