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Why was Obama so divisive?

President Barack Obama YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images

These are President Obama’s last few days in office, and so conservatives are dusting off their favorite critique: Barack Obama has been one of the most divisive presidents in memory.

It’s something you can expect to hear from right-wing media, so today, let’s take a tour through right-wing reasoning.

Obama has divided America, we’re told, by pointing out, after the mass shootings that this country suffers with mind-numbing regularity, that our lax gun laws are part of the problem. (Imagine!) He’s attacked wealthy Americans with incendiary comments such as this one: “The wealthiest Americans should pay their fair share.” Why, he has even demonized corporate jet owners by targeting a tax break they enjoy! (Have you no sense of decency, sir?)

Meanwhile, he’s been utterly reckless on race. One conservative website blasts the president for noting, in his remarks at the July memorial service for five slain Dallas police officers, that “if you’re black, you’re more likely to be pulled over or searched or arrested; more likely to get longer sentences; more likely to get the death penalty for the same crime.” There is, after all, nothing quite so offensive as saying what’s true.

Granted, Obama usually talked in reasonable tones, but that is part and parcel of what made his divisiveness so insidious. “He spoke softly and antagonized only by innuendo,” one conservative intellectual wrote in the The American Thinker.


Now, a naif might call divisiveness by innuendo oxymoronic. (Or perhaps even pare that adjective down to something less syllabic.) Ah, but even if mostly unspoken — and perhaps even unintentional — Obama’s divisiveness “split the country like an ax of covert bigotry.”

Mind you, there are other kinds of presidential divisiveness that are every bit as troubling — and just as difficult for a nonconservative to spot. It is, for example, extremely alienating if a duly elected Democratic president supports policies conservatives don’t.

No wonder, then, that divisiveness detective Mo Brooks, a Republican US representative from Alabama, has declared Obama the most “racially divisive, economic divisive [sic], president” since those “who supported slavery.” Obama, you see, “really does not try to win elections based on public policies that are based on the best interest of America.” This placid prophet of antipolarization is the same congressman who suggested that Obama should be impeached and imprisoned for his executive actions on immigration.

Other times, Obama is panned for having the temerity to stick to his political priorities in the face of GOP opposition. Thus Obama found a way to “ram through” the Affordable Care Act, though it only had the support of a measly 59 Senators. Similarly, writing in the Sunday New York Times, Eric Cantor, House minority whip during Obama’s first two years, faulted the president for pushing ahead with his economic stimulus plan in the face of Cantor’s objection. The new president, Cantor recalls, said: “Elections have consequences and . . . I won. So I think on that one I trump you.” Why, the established order hasn’t witnessed such brazen solipsism since Napoleon crowned himself emperor rather than letting Pope Pius VII do the honors.


Elephantine observers may recall that some congressional Republicans, Cantor among them, had already decided to slow down Obama’s legislative agenda and deny him meaningful victories. And that the then-minority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, declared his single most important goal was to make Obama a one-term president — and engaged in a long, obstructionist effort to that end. But none of that can be called divisive because . . . well, because it would ruin the conservative story line.

When it comes to divisiveness, then, what conservatives have is not a standard but rather a double standard. So here’s the question: After their hair-trigger criticism of Obama, will conservatives call out Donald Trump’s truly polarizing behavior — or suddenly decide that divisiveness no longer matters?

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.