To voters angry at Washington, President Obama has an explanation for the deepening of gridlock, incompetence, and zero-sum gain thinking during his five-plus years in office: It's not his fault.
Not that finger-pointing solves anything, but Obama wants you to know that it was Republicans and the media who put his presidency on ice. At a fundraiser in Chicago on Thursday night, Obama said:
"You'll hear if you watch the nightly news or you read the newspapers that, well, there's gridlock, Congress is broken, approval ratings for Congress are terrible. And there's a tendency to say, a plague on both your houses. But the truth of the matter is that the problem in Congress is very specific. We have a group of folks in the Republican Party who have taken over who are so ideologically rigid, who are so committed to an economic theory that says if folks at the top do very well then everybody else is somehow going to do well; who deny the science of climate change; who don't think making investments in early-childhood education makes sense; who have repeatedly blocked raising a minimum wage so if you work full-time in this country you're not living in poverty; who scoff at the notion that we might have a problem with women not getting paid for doing the same work that men are doing.
"They, so far, at least, have refused to budge on bipartisan legislation to fix our immigration system, despite the fact that every economist who's looked at it says it's going to improve our economy, cut our deficits, help spawn entrepreneurship, and alleviate great pain from millions of families all across the country.
"So the problem … is not that the Democrats are overly ideological—because the truth of the matter is, is that the Democrats in Congress have consistently been willing to compromise and reach out to the other side. There are no radical proposals coming out from the left. When we talk about climate change, we talk about how do we incentivize through the market greater investment in clean energy. When we talk about immigration reform there's no wild-eyed romanticism. We say we're going to be tough on the borders, but let's also make sure that the system works to allow families to stay together …
"When we talk about taxes we don't say we're going to have rates in the 70 percent or 90 percent when it comes to income like existed here 50, 60 years ago. We say let's just make sure that those of us who have been incredibly blessed by this country are giving back to kids so that they're getting a good start in life, so that they get early childhood education.… Health care—we didn't suddenly impose some wild, crazy system. All we said was, let's make sure everybody has insurance. And this made the other side go nuts—the simple idea that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, nobody should go bankrupt because somebody in their family gets sick, working within a private system.
"So when you hear a false equivalence that somehow, well, Congress is just broken, it's not true. What's broken right now is a Republican Party that repeatedly says no to proven, time-tested strategies to grow the economy, create more jobs, ensure fairness, open up opportunity to all people."
Obama could be forgiven for trying to motivate his liberal base with distorted and overheated rhetoric, if it wasn't clear that he actually means it.
The truth is that both parties are ideologically rigid. Unbending is the nature of a political parties, especially when voters themselves are sorting into "red" and "blue" teams; when computer-assisted redistricting and other structural factors encourage partisanship; and when the media industry is being pushed (and is pushing voters) to political extremes.
Obama can reasonably argue that the Republican Party is more rigid than the Democratic Party. I would agree, and I don't hesitate to hold the GOP accountable for positions that place the party on the wrong side of history and demographic trends.
But it's my belief that Obama has overstated his obstacles to success on taxes, immigration, climate change, and other issues. The candidate of unbridled optimism in 2008 is now cynical, bowed, and nearly beaten—a leader whose excuse for failure amounts to, I can't lead because Republicans won't let me. By the way, that is not a conservative talking point; it's rooted in dozens of conversations I've had in the past 17 months with Democrats.
Greg Sargent, a liberal writer for the Washington Post, anticipated my response in a post Friday:
This will prompt the Green Lanternite pundits, who continue to trace the problem to Obama's failure to move Congress, to argue that he is merely making excuses for failure. I would note, though, that in his remarks, he also said the only remedy for the problem is for Democrats to vote out Republicans, which is to say, it's on Democrats to fix by winning elections …
Sargent makes a reasonable point. However, Democrats had control of both chambers of Congress when Obama took office in 2009, and most voters weren't happy with the result. Furthermore, Sargent's prescription for a better state of politics is exactly what's wrong with the system. "Winning elections" is all the matters in Washington. Obama promised better.
Sargent's colleague Dan Balz quoted Obama at the Chicago fundraiser in his Sunday column and reached a different conclusion:
There is truth to the president's claim that a faction of the Republican Party has forced House GOP leaders to resist compromise and that the party's confrontational hard-liners have changed the rules on Capitol Hill.
But there are Republicans on Capitol Hill who are not ideological hard-liners and who lament what they regard as a president and White House senior staff who have grown increasingly withdrawn. They hear what Obama said Thursday and are offended. They think he does not try to understand the reasons they differ with his policies, believing he simply prefers to portray them all as heartless and captured by the tea party.
Obama chafes at such even-handed analyses. He dismisses them as "false equivalence" because the president won't be happy until every news story casts him as the hero and Republicans as the villains.
In politics and in everyday life, rarely are both sides equally wrong, which is why journalists shouldn't draw false equivalence. Balz is an example of how to measure blame fairly, not necessarily equally.
Rarer still is one side 100 percent right, which is why Obama is guilty of false purity. Obama's intellectual dishonesty has prevented him from learning on the job, which is what's required of great presidents—the kind who overcome obstacles that others whine about.