Go Ahead and Say It, Mr. President

Republicans are your true enemy.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) listens to President Obama deliver the State of the Union address.
The opposition: House Speaker John Boehner listens to President Obama deliver the State of the Union address on Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Sept. 11. Afghanistan. Iraq. Fort Hood. The ground zero mosque. ISIS. Paris.

Again and again, Republicans demand to know why President Obama won’t name the enemy. They say he’s too forgiving, too afraid of ideological conflict, too reluctant to wage all-out war, too eager to find people of good will on the other side.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe he should come out and say it: The GOP is trying to destroy him.

Anyone who has watched Obama’s genteel response to his Republican tormentors shouldn’t be surprised at his delicacy about Islam. He resists generalizations and looks for common ground, whether the context is terrorism or domestic politics. No matter what Republicans do—heckle his speeches, impugn his patriotism, shut down the government, threaten a credit default, stage countless votes to repeal his health care law—he refuses to categorically condemn them. The classic Obama line is “That’s not just my opinion,” followed by a bouquet to some Republican who thinks Obama is the devil. “That’s not just my opinion, that’s John McCain’s opinion,” says Obama. Or: “This isn’t just my position. … It’s a position that’s been taken by every Democratic and Republican president,” including “Ronald Reagan.” Or: “That’s not just my view; the majority of Republicans agree with that view.”

Last fall, Republicans captured the Senate by running a nationwide campaign against Obama. But in his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, the president held out an olive branch. There isn’t “a liberal America or a conservative America,” he argued. There’s only “a United States of America.” He acknowledged that pundits considered his bipartisan optimism naïve. But he concluded, “I still believe that we are one people.”

Republicans responded with derision. When Obama said, “I have no more campaigns to run,” they applauded mockingly. He poked them right back, with a wink: “I know, ’cause I won both of them.” But then he turned the other cheek: “I hope you’ll at least work with me where you do agree. And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger.”

The next day, Obama gave a shout-out to the former Republican lieutenant governor of Illinois, which, he noted, was the home of the first Republican president. At a speech in Kansas, Obama pleaded for unity: “Whoever we are—Republican, Democrat … we all share a common vision for our future.” In a Jan. 23 interview with Vox, Obama praised the Republican governors of Alaska, Michigan, and Ohio.

On Feb. 1, Obama was asked in an NBC interview about the mockery of him during the State of the Union. He shrugged it off as good-natured “ribbing” and changed the subject: “What I want us to focus on is the areas we have in common.” The next day, he sent his budget proposal to Congress. Republicans, determined to block his immigration agenda, were withholding money for the Department of Homeland Security. But Obama said these saboteurs didn’t represent the true GOP: “A large percentage of Republicans agree that we need comprehensive immigration reform.” Instead of using the fight for partisan advantage, Obama spread the blame to his own party. “Republicans and Democrats in Congress should not be playing politics” with the department’s funding, he warned.

On Feb. 6, Obama went to Indiana and lauded Dick Lugar, the state’s former Republican senator. The next day, in his weekly radio address, he repeated: “I’ll work with anyone, Republican or Democrat, who wants to get to ‘yes.’ … We should stop refighting old battles and start working together.” Even last Friday, in his speech to the Democratic National Committee, five of Obama’s nine references to Republicans were positive. “If Republicans are serious about taking on the specific challenges that face the middle class,” he pleaded, “we should welcome them.”

That’s how Obama treats his domestic adversaries. He doesn’t take the bait. He doesn’t define the whole opposition party by its worst elements. He rejects polarization. He emphasizes shared values. He reminds his own partisans that they, too, are sinners.

For Democrats, this can be exasperating. It’s especially exasperating when Republicans refuse to take responsibility for, or even disown, outbursts from their colleagues, such as Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” or Rudy Giuliani’s “I do not believe that the president loves America.” Rep. Darrell Issa, who as chairman of the House oversight committee has led investigations of the Obama administration, claims Giuliani didn’t deny that Obama loves America—“He said he didn’t believe” Obama loves America. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a 2016 presidential hopeful, says of Giuliani’s remark: “If you are looking for someone to condemn the mayor, look elsewhere.” Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana backs up Giuliani’s insinuation that Obama favors the enemy over his own country: “[Giuliani] is understandably frustrated with a president who, as I said before, is fully willing to lecture the people of this country about the Crusades but is unwilling to call Islamic extremism for what it is.”

Please. If we’re going to start calling out religious and political groups for extremism, we could start at home with Republicans. Too many of them spew animus. Too many foment sectarianism. Too many sit by, or make excuses, as others appeal to tribalism. If Obama were to treat them the way they say he should treat Islam—holding the entire faith accountable for its ugliest followers—they’d squeal nonstop about slander and demagogy. They’re lucky that’s not his style.

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