The sudden eruption of second-term scandals in his administration will have many costs for President Obama, but surely the most grievous will be the lost opportunity to transcend the partisan wars of Washington. That aspiration was his fondest dream for his second term, much as it was for his first. Now it seems destined to be dashed once again.
Of course, there are those who believe Barack Obama never intended to be anything but a conquering hero of the left. The most intractable of his detractors see the recent revelations about the IRS and certain conservative groups as caught-red-handed confirmation of a White House plot to destroy its opponents. That impression of abused power is only reinforced by news of the Justice Department's swooping down in secret on the telephone records of The Associated Press.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said that his department swept up the AP records last year in investigating "a very grave leak" related to national security. That is a justification Americans have heard often enough to inspire skepticism. Holder was not able to describe the security breach in question, so we are left to take its gravity on faith. And there's precious little of that in Washington, even in the best of times.
Holder has also joined the dog pile on the IRS, which has admitted it sent extra-onerous questionnaires to groups starting in 2011 if they had "Tea Party" or "Patriot" in their names. While that may have begun as a way for IRS bureaucrats to prioritize within a mountain of new applications for tax exemption, it smacks of using the power to tax to persecute.
These episodes recall the excesses of previous administrations, back to Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, two strong presidents whose landslide victories propelled them to the heights of political power. Subsequent overreach brought each to earth with such force that the craters are still visible in the American political landscape.
Obama's aspirations were different. He never thought he could win 40 states or 60 percent of the popular vote. He knew he was struggling for just enough votes to win. But beyond Election Day, he was no less ambitious than his predecessors in the breadth and loft of his program. He set out to remake the health care and immigration systems, as well as to redefine financial regulation and the tax code and the nation's balance of energy and environment. And beyond these goals, he wanted to make a clear majority of Americans stakeholders in his program.
By so doing, he believed, he could build a coalition of the middle around solutions more practical than ideological. Were he able to do all that, he would be remembered as more than the champion of one party and the victor in two presidential elections. He would be a president who moved the nation, as a nation, in a certain direction. That has been the judgment of history on FDR and Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan — all partisan warriors in their rise to power who are widely revered in retrospect.
Was it hubris that made Obama hope for a place in such company? His first term began with tremendous momentum. Not only was his election itself historic, but the banking crisis of 2008-2009 forced the warring parties in Congress to act in concert — if only for a season. Early on, the new president and his inner circle thought they could negotiate on health care and other issues on a bipartisan basis. They saw a Republican Party chastened by the election of 2008 and ready to deal. They saw the prospect of a new consensus.
Opposition To President
But within the first few months of that term, a more virulent form of opposition developed within conservative ranks. It manifested itself in protest marches, angry town hall meetings and primary challenges to mainstream Republican officeholders. Call it the Tea Party or the anti-Obama movement or just the resurgence of traditional attitudes. By any name, it dominated the elections of 2010, especially at the state level. The enactments of 2009 and 2010 gave way to the fiscal wars and confrontations of the past 24 months.
The Obama team endured all that and kept its focus on November 2012. Re-elected, the president hoped his return to the Oval Office might occasion "a fever break" in Washington. There could be a sense of capitulation, a season of acceptance. Given the distinct demographic evidence from Election Day, Republicans would want to appeal to a younger, more diverse electorate.
But it hasn't happened that way. Set aside the urgings of one report offered up by the Republican National Committee in March, the standard posture of the GOP has been anything but conciliatory. From the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling to gun control and the immigration laws, the opposition party has been as unified and as oppositional as ever.
Even before the IRS and AP stories burst into view, the Republican focus was on the Benghazi tragedy of last September. And this week, the House will have yet another vote to repeal Obamacare, the 37th such attempt to repeal the law in whole or in part. In the Senate, Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is incensed that the secretary of health and human services is coordinating efforts with private groups to promote participation in the new health care law.
We can now be sure that the capital's pre-existing condition of partisanship will worsen with complications from multiple investigations, probes and Hill hearings as far as the eye can see. Whatever else that means, it means that the President Obama we have will not be the President Obama he wanted to become.