Clinton's experience suggests that merely being a Democrat is enough to evoke hysteria in some quarters. In matters of policy, he was about as congenial as any conservative could have hoped -- cooperating with Republicans to balance the budget, advancing free trade, rejecting an international treaty banning land mines, signing welfare reform and threatening to bomb North Korea over its nuclear program. Yet even today, many on the right regard him as an extreme liberal.
Obama has yet to do anything comparable to what Clinton did in appropriating conservative themes, thus confirming fears that he is more liberal than he let on last year. To the contrary, he has championed a huge fiscal stimulus, taken over General Motors, pushed a cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases and proposed that the federal government run a new health insurance program to compete with the private sector.
So it doesn't require wholesale fabrications to find evidence that he is a committed socialist. It just takes a little imagination and a little paranoia, which have never been scarce on either end of the American political spectrum.
The context also matters a lot. Obama took office during a recession that was the scariest economic crisis in decades -- which under his predecessor had induced some of the most drastic and expansive government initiatives in our history. He took over in the middle of two wars. And he represented a shift on cultural issues like gay rights and affirmative action.
He is president, in short, at a highly consequential moment. And consequential moments inflame the political climate, because so much is at stake.
Does that mean the ferocious criticism has nothing to do with race? Of course not. Obama may be a "post-racial" figure, but there is still a significant slice of the electorate that has never gotten past his skin color.
For anyone who regards blacks as irredeemably alien or inferior, Obama is a nightmare, not just because he is black but because he so thoroughly confounds racist stereotypes.
But that's a minor factor, not a decisive one. It is Obama's party and policies that are the real source of the opposition. If you think otherwise, consider how calmly and congenially the right would have responded if a different Democrat had been inaugurated on Jan. 20: Al Gore.