Obama has reignited his promise to put aside ‘petty politics’ and work with adversaries to forge a common ground on health care. But amid the culture wars and hyper-polarization of today’s political climate, where millions of American’s don’t even see him as a “legitimate” president, is such a promise tenable?
Question: Has Obama succeeded on his promise of being a “post-partisan” President?
Rick Perlstein: Well, the problem with Obama’s post-partisan agenda is that he came into it. He came into his presidency at a time when millions of Americans, perhaps even tens of millions of Americans don’t consider a democrat president legitimate. Don’t consider liberalism legitimate. Don’t consider the idea of the state forming new programs to help people legitimate. So, he’s in a situation a lot like, you know, Abraham Lincoln faced in 1860 when you had millions of Americans who didn’t even consider what was going in Washington to have anything to do with them.
So, the big question for me was always was this post-partisan idea, this idea that you could kind of bring adversaries across a table and get them to agree to each other and agree with - to get them to agree with each other and achieve social progress, was that a deep-seated belief of his or was that, in a certain sense, a tactic? Not a cynical tactic, but a tactic. And I would be very with him if it were a way of thinking about politics, if it were a tactic, because the job of transformative leader is not to **** the center, but define their own values as the center, as common sense. And if he, you know, I believe in the agenda he’s putting forward. For example, universal healthcare. You know, for example, you know, cap and trade and green jobs as a way to, you know, solve our energy problems while growing the economy. I think these are reasonable while liberal goals and if he presents them as reasonable and the reaction to them as one could knew they were going to - because there are these millions of people that don’t consider a liberal president legitimate - was irrational, extreme, that presented him an opportunity to say, “My program is rational, but my opposition has chosen extremism, has chosen unreason,” and be willing to take the hit, that there's always going to be a minority of the country. Thirty percent, 35 percent, even 40 percent who disagrees with him radically. Disagrees with him strongly, but if he’s still willing to pass his program with that 60 percent margin, the rest of the country will eventually catch up. The reactionaries will understand as they did with Social Security, as they did with, you know, women getting the vote, freeing the slaves, you know, Social Security. That actually these things were in their interests. They’ll accept them as part of the established order of American society, and in fact, 20, 30, 40 year down the road the Republicans and the Conservatives will be campaigning to save universal healthcare just like they campaign to save Social Security.
But the problem is this doesn’t really work unless you make this kind of tactical shift. If people say that you're illegitimate and your liberal agenda is extremist socialist destroying the America that we all grew up with, you have to be willing to say, “This is unreasonable. This is extreme.” And if you aren’t able to say, “This is unreasonable and this is extreme,” then you're granting your opposition an undue influence. You’re basically negotiating with the unnegotiatable. And as Abraham Lincoln said quite eloquently in this 1860 speech at Cooper Union, you can’t win that way.
Recorded on: October 19, 2009