Michael Gerson: Bonfire of the straw men

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: January 22, 2013
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Those who oppose this agenda, in Obama's view, are not a very admirable lot. They evidently don't want our wives, mothers and daughters to “earn a living equal to their efforts.” They mistake “absolutism for principle” and “substitute spectacle for politics” and “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” They would have people's “twilight years spent in poverty” and ensure that the parents of disabled children have “nowhere to turn.” They would reserve freedom “for the lucky” and believe that Medicare and Social Security “sap our initiative,” and see this as “a nation of takers.”

For Abraham Lincoln, even the gravest national crimes involved shared fault. For Obama, even the most commonplace policy disagreements indicate the bad faith of his opponents. In his first inaugural address, George Washington described the “sacred fire of liberty.” In his second, Obama constructed a raging bonfire of straw men.

Sobered, hardened figure

Obama arrived with limited experience on the national stage — only to find himself in the fight from the last act of Hamlet. He seemed surprised that Washington could not be changed by the force of his personality. He has become a sobered and hardened figure. A former public official who often interacted with Obama put it this way to me: “Obama disdains politicians and the art of politics, but he is highly competitive and wants to beat them at their own game.”

This is not a problem if the president is merely one participant among many in a series of zero-sum political battles. But this approach has serious drawbacks if a president is called to play a leadership role in reforms that require both parties to trust each other and take simultaneous risks. On the evidence of his second inaugural, Obama has moved beyond such idealism.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP



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