One night last February, President Obama was attending a million-dollar fundraiser in Florida when he spotted a local Republican activist he knew was close to Marco Rubio, the star Republican senator from that state.
At the time, Mr. Rubio was being discussed as a potential vice presidential pick. Mr. Obama approached the woman and asked, “So, is your boy going to go for it?”
“The woman certainly wasn’t expecting this sort of welcome,” Politico reporter Glenn Thrush relates in his new e-book, “Obama’s Last Stand.” “But she had seen this side of Obama before, the puckish trash-talker — not the professor who delivered high-minded lectures to eye-rolling senators.”
“I don’t know. It could happen,” the woman said with a chuckle.
“Well,” Mr. Obama replied as he moved in a little closer, “tell your boy to watch it. He might get his ass kicked.”
Most Americans have an image of Mr. Obama as an unflappable, smooth and above-the-fray president. There used to be some truth to that perception, but it has evaporated slowly over the past four years as a meaner, nastier and more combative Mr. Obama has emerged.
Intimidation is a tactic Mr. Obama has employed liberally in pursuit of his policy agenda. Weeks after his inauguration, Mr. Obama threatened mayors who received stimulus money that he would “call them out” if they did not spend the money as he saw fit.
He publicly berated the Supreme Court during his 2010 State of the Union address after the court ruled in a way he disagreed with. Later, ahead of the court’s Obamacare decision, Mr. Obama issued threats against the court, suggesting the court’s legitimacy would erode if it ruled against his health care reform law.
Mr. Obama has saved his most incendiary words for what opinion polls show is America’s most despised institution: Congress. There’s no getting around it, Mr. Obama just doesn’t like or respect Congress.
Apparently, it’s a feeling he shares with his wife. “It was one of the areas where the Obamas seemed to reinforce and stoke each other,” journalist Jodi Kantor has written. “The president’s opinion of Capitol Hill legislators was low, and his wife’s was lower.”
Mr. Obama demonstrates his disdain most of all by constantly bypassing the other co-equal branches of government, issuing executive orders to impose an agenda that he cannot pass through the democratic process. He often justifies these arguably unconstitutional acts with some variation of “We can’t wait for Congress to act.”
A former State Department official told journalist Ed Klein, “I’ve been in a lot of meetings with [the president] on foreign policy. While I was in the room, he’d get phone calls from heads of state, and more than once I heard him say, ‘I can’t believe I’ve got to meet with all these congressmen from Podunk city to get my bills passed.’ “
Larry Summers, a former top economic adviser to Mr. Obama and former Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, told journalist Bob Woodward about negotiating with Congress: “Obama doesn’t really have the joy of the game. Clinton basically loved negotiating with a bunch of pols, about anything. Whereas, Obama, he really didn’t like these guys.”
Mr. Obama has aimed much of his invective at Republicans. Even worse, he constantly mischaracterizes his opponents, their values and motives. He has called congressional Republicans “hostage takers” and “founding members of the Flat Earth Society” who regularly “put party before country.”
He also has deep enmity for political opponents. “Obama really hates that guy,” an adviser said about Rick Santorum after the former GOP presidential candidate criticized Mr. Obama for allowing one of his daughters to visit Mexico while there was a travel warning over its ongoing drug war.
And while Mitt Romney goes out of his way to tell audiences he thinks Mr. Obama is a nice guy and a good family man, Mr. Obama doesn’t return the favor. “There was a baseline of respect for John McCain. The president always thought he was an honorable man and a war hero,” a longtime Obama adviser told Glenn Thrush. “That doesn’t hold true for Romney. He was no [expletive deleted] war hero.”
Even Democrats do not escape Mr. Obama’s ire. As Politico reported recently, “It’s no secret that Obama’s relationship with other Democrats has never been great. [C]ongressional Democrats have come to view Obama’s team as a bunch of self-serving dilettantes who know little — and care less — about what it takes to hold or capture majorities.”
This isn’t just a matter of tone. Mr. Obama’s combativeness is an important reason why gridlock seems to define today’s politics and why public trust in government has reached all-time lows.
The White House tends to have an elevating effect on its occupants, but the presidency has had a diminishing effect on Mr. Obama, reducing him to a mudslinger who seems to prefer attacking and defaming his opponents over finding common ground or governing.
Gary Bauer, a former Republican presidential candidate, is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.