President Obama regards promises as pie crusts, only to be broken, but he has kept one promise, which deserves recognition. He promised to change the tone and tenor of Washington, and so he has. The tenor is loud and the tone is sour, and he is in large measure responsible.
During the government shutdown Mr. Obama often likened his opponents to terrorists. That’s why, he said in explanation, he refused to bargain with Congress. “It’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers unless the hostage gets harmed,” said Mr. Obama. “In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed.” His allies took this as a signal to employ his slash-and-burn language.
Rep. Steve Cohen, a loyal Democrat from Memphis, compared his Republican colleagues in the House to al Qaeda sleeper cells. “We take an oath to support the country against all enemies foreign and domestic,” he told MSNBC, “and these are the domestic enemies.” Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida raised the temperature even more, likening the Tea Party to the Ku Klux Klan in an email, which featured an image of a burning cross as the “T” in Tea Party. Moveon.org started a petition demanding that Speaker John Boehner and his Republicans be arrested and tried for sedition.
MSNBC took the cue from the White House and ran with it. Chris Matthews of MSNBC, ever ready to say wild and crazy things, calls Republicans racists and likens them to slaveholders, asking whether Tea Party members “still count blacks as three-fifths?” Chris, who must have been absent the day his junior-high school class studied American history, doesn’t understand that slaves were counted as three-fifths of a citizen to reduce the South’s slaveholding representation in the House. His fellow talking head Martin Bashir recently inquired whether “Ted Cruz is a bit like the David Koresh of the Republican Party?” Koresh was the leader of the Branch Davidian religious sect whose compound was raided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on the order of Attorney General Janet Reno, a Democrat, killing 54 adults and 28 children.
“Activists” on the Democratic fringe threatened to kill Sen. Ted Cruz for trying to delay Obamacare, which Mr. Obama himself may yet do to clean up the train wreck. One random Twitter user published the home address of the Texas senator, adding, “What goes around comes around CRUZ.” How civil is that?
The president is a gifted orator, and his celebrated rhetoric finds little resonance on the low road. He should remember that many of his people take their lead from what he says, interpreting it in ways that he might not approve. Mr. Obama could accomplish more by using his talent to uplift and inspire, as FDR, Ronald Reagan and other presidents have done. Mr. Obama forgets that he’s no longer the community activist in Chicago.
The president prefers to lecture audiences about civility. Before the 2010 midterm elections, Mr. Obama painted Tea Party candidates as extreme, blaming them for creating a “poisonous political climate” where “all you see when you turn on the TV is name-calling.” The president’s followers dutifully picked up on the civility theme and pilloried “activists” on the other side as if they were the problem. The shutdown episode revealed who’s really committed to tempering the rhetoric.
In his first presidential campaign, Mr. Obama boasted that if Republicans “bring a knife to the fight, we can bring a gun.” The president should break that unworthy promise and sheath his knife and holster his pop gun. He’s the president now, not a Chicago gangster, and he shouldn’t talk like one.