The signature theme of President Joe Biden's inaugural address was unity, and he vowed that his "whole soul" would be invested in "bringing America together" and "uniting our people."
Obama badly overestimated the degree to which soaring rhetoric and good intentions could paper over real divisions over values and priorities.
"We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal," Biden declared. After all, we've been told, "there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there's the United States of America."
The second of those sentences comes from Barack Obama's keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. It's a reminder that Democrats need to do much more than rely on soaring rhetoric to achieve this noble goal.
The most obvious example that Obama failed to unify America's political camps is that he was followed in office by Donald Trump, whose approach was diametrically opposed yet won over some of his voters in key battleground states.
Trump's rise as the defender of an aggrieved working class and the exurban masses was not unrelated to Obama's tenure. Democrats might like to see him as a unique threat whose memory should be blotted out, but he is actually a symptom, not a cause. And if the left does no soul-searching and course correction now that it's back in power, Trump's brand of politics is likely to long outlive him.
Trump tapped into two of Obama's major shortcomings, and they will both need attention from Biden. The first is the attitude he conveyed toward that disaffected group; the second is the policies he denied it.
On a practical level, Obama-era neoliberalism just didn't deliver materially and economically for this struggling population. And in the ever-important realm of political communication, Obama badly overestimated the degree to which soaring rhetoric and good intentions could paper over real divisions over values and priorities. Even that rhetoric and those intentions caused some problems. Many voters saw Obama as patronizing, though his admirers mostly dismissed it — only exacerbating its corrosiveness.
Even before he became president, Obama's failure was predictable. George W. Bush had also campaigned as a "uniter, not a divider." But he didn't succeed, because he was too closely identified with one side of the political divide. Obama was a representative of the other. Neither was as self-consciously divisive in his political strategies and public arguments as Trump, but the breach was so great that it didn't really matter.
Obama "leaves behind a country more divided than the one he found," observed the liberal pundit Ezra Klein. "He rose in American politics by saying there were no red states and blue states only to prove that, yes, there really were red states and blue states."
Though Obama was seemingly able to understand those on the other side of the political divide, seldom did this empathy — undeniably absent in Trump — result in his adopting something markedly different from the conventional liberal position on substantive public policy.
And when Obama's legislative ambitions were thwarted by such disagreements, he could take on a much less generous tone — one that put down his opponents rather than respected them and called into question the sincerity of his earlier compassion.
Here is Obama talking about immigration in his 2006 memoir: "When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I'm forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration." But those who opposed an immigration bill he championed had buckled "under the pressures of partisanship and election-year politics," he said in a 2010 speech.
He rhetorically sympathized with white conservatives in remarks he made during his first presidential run: "When they are told to bus their children to a school across town, when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed, when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time."
Yet in his most recent book, he described those same people as "taking language once used by the disadvantaged to highlight a societal ill and turning it on its ear."
"The problem is no longer discrimination against people of color, the argument goes; it's 'reverse racism,'" he wrote.
This in turn influenced how Obama was perceived by many of those who had voted against him. To detractors, the quotation that best summed up the contempt they felt was his infamous remark about voters in hard-hit Midwestern towns: "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Some of these towns turned the sharpest from Obama and the Democrats to Trump, a trend Biden only partly reversed and mostly counteracted by making gains in the suburbs. A fusion of social liberalism with a Chamber of Commerce-style approach to trade and immigration deepened these voters' cultural anxieties about gun, religion, abortion and affirmative action policies' going against their beliefs without improving their material conditions, triggering a backlash on both the populist right and the Bernie Sanders left.
Indeed, Rust Belt voters saw a Democratic administration committed to trade and environmental regulations that they thought would lay their communities to waste, unconvinced that taxpayer bailouts for automobile manufacturers would keep their families afloat. Even many liberals regarded Obama's economic approach as too corporate-friendly after the crisis on Wall Street. "He chose an economic recovery plan that benefited educated, well-off people much more than the middle class," wrote former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt.
A fusion of social liberalism with a Chamber of Commerce-style approach to trade and immigration deepened these voters’ cultural anxieties.
The passionate attachment many Americans felt toward Obama was simply not shared across the political divide. Biden, who has borrowed heavily from his old boss's oratorical approach despite being a less gifted speaker, will have to consider this if he truly seeks to unify a country where nearly 49 percent of those who turned out in November did not vote for him.
Disagreements between liberals and conservatives cannot simply be waved away with nice speeches, so Biden would be wise not to try, particularly when his rhetorical flourishes reveal the same disconnect that undermined Obama's verbal overtures: The insistence that these differences do not matter because Americans are all fundamentally good and decent sits uneasily alongside the implication that Democrats find themselves fighting political forces that are somewhat indecent. Are we in need of "a little tolerance and humility," as Biden put it, or are our politics a battle to "defend the truth and to defeat the lies"?
If both sides do not see themselves in the other's vision of America, the "uncivil war" will continue even if Biden's tone is more elevated than Trump's.