Editor’s note: The following column first appeared in The Hill newspaper and on TheHill.com.
If you ask me, President Obama is being way too hard on himself.
“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency, that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” the president said during his final State of the Union address last week. He added, “a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.”
While I’m all for humility, the president is not to blame for the rancor and polarization that have characterized his presidency.
It was Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) who famously declared that his number one goal was to make Obama a “one-term president.”
Obama is not responsible for the unprecedented obstructionism employed by McConnell’s Senate Republicans to block nearly all of his nominees and proposals. He has not even used executive action to get around Congress as extensively as did Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. But his critics deride him as a constitutional outlaw.
Similarly, ObamaCare is based on Republican proposals such as the health care plan Mitt Romney put in place as governor of Massachusetts.
How is Obama to blame for Congressional Republicans stopping cap-and-trade proposals to reduce air pollution when the idea originated with them?
Despite all this, the president seemed willing to take responsibility for polls showing a high percentage of Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction, and are angry at him and Washington. But he won the White House twice and his approval rating, despite the non-stop attacks, is about 44 percent. The GOP-led Congress has an approval rating of around 13 percent. So who is dragging down the country?
The calls for the GOP majority in Congress to block Obama at every turn are rooted in paranoid, arguably racist, fringes of the electorate.
“Has Mr. Obama always confronted a ceiling in how widely he would be loved or even accepted because he is the nation’s first African-American president?,” Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald F. Seib wondered last week.
Good question. Let’s not forget that the current front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, Donald Trump, made his name among Republicans back in 2011 by talking up conspiracy theories about the president’s birth certificate.
Last September, a PPP poll found that 61 percent of Trump supporters believe Obama was born in another country and 44 percent of all Republicans hold to the same misconception. A CNN poll found that 43 percent of Republicans believe the president is a Muslim, not a Christian. These are the same Republicans who desperately tried to cripple Obama in the 2008 election for being too close to his Christian minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Again, how was Obama supposed to bridge that divide?
Just last week at the GOP debate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spoke with open disdain of the first black president, fondly anticipating a time when “we are going to kick your rear end out of the White House.”
Who could forget South Carolina GOP Rep. Joe Wilson screaming “You lie!” at Obama? How about Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R), who in fall 2008 described Obama, then the Democratic nominee for president, as “uppity”?
How would Lincoln or Roosevelt have dealt with racist nonsense on this scale?
Two weeks out from the Iowa caucuses, the Republican Party has officially entered its winter of discontent and they have only themselves to blame.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, was strikingly honest when she took a not-so-subtle shot at Trump in her response to the State of the Union. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation,” she said. “When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”
In a subsequent interview, Haley said Trump contributed to “irresponsible talk.”
Trump blasted back saying that Haley was “weak on illegal immigration.” Conservative writer Ann Coulter, a fervent Trump supporter, tweeted that Trump should deport Haley when he becomes president.
Last week in this column, I referenced an NBC News /Esquire/Survey Monkey poll showing political rage among white Republicans, particularly white Republican women, at a fever pitch. Sixty-one percent of Republicans said they had grown angrier over current events as compared to 42 percent of Democrats.
Even Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who owes his Speakership to the angry Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus who ousted his predecessor, former-Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), is wary of the discontent coming from his party these days.
The GOP “is in a debate with itself,” Ryan said recently, advising the party to do a better job of appealing to people who “feel the country is more polarized and more bitter.” But as the leader of the Republican House, he took no responsibility for his party stirring the bitter brew.
Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist, recently wrote there is chaos in the GOP because the base “is in a jumble.”
And now the country is in a jumble because the GOP is in a jumble. Democracy breaks down when one of the two political parties refuses to compromise or respect the twice-elected president, and throws a temper tantrum when its members don’t get their way.
This isn’t President Obama’s fault. It isn’t even really the fault of the Donald Trump and all his imitators running for the party’s nomination. It is the fault of the leaders of the Republican Party who have let anger and extreme voices define their party.
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC’s “The Five,” where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.