Divider in Chief

After getting elected on the promise of uniting red and blue America, Barack Obama has polarized the country faster than the last guys—but that’s not his fault, says Lee Siegel.

08.20.09 10:44 PM ET

Time for an unreality check. Maybe all of us who think that making universal health care the law of the land is the most important issue of our lifetimes would not be feeling so angry and bitter if we took a step back and looked at the true cause of our rage: the liberals who raised such impossible expectations of Obama in the first place.

Needless to say, the opposition—both rational and irrational—to Obama’s proposed plans would still be here. But if it weren’t for months of giddy rhetoric about the post-racial society, and the triumph of cosmopolitan values, and the dawn of a new golden consensus on everything that is socially just and decent—if it weren’t for all that good, old-fashioned American optimism that has such an egotistical, deluded underside, then we would have known what to expect when Obama started his health-care push and how to deal with it politically, intellectually, and emotionally.

Obama’s own near-obsessive, Lincoln-like harping on the nation’s divisiveness throughout his campaign was both a warning of the coming storm and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You remember how it went. Obama was Lincoln, and then he was FDR, and then he was Jesus. Conservatism as a political movement was finished (as moderate and pragmatic conservatism: yes, for the foreseeable future; as an emotional force: never). The red-state trolls who cling to their guns, and their religion, and their—help me, I’ve forgotten: Was it plastic sofa covers? Air fresheners?—had been vanquished. The deceptive distraction of the culture wars was over. People had finally woken up to their true economic interest.

The liberals who proclaimed these fantasies were of various stripes. They were former conservatives scrambling to stay in the game who had thought Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve worthy of serious consideration, supported Bush’s war in Iraq with a vengeance, and in the days after the 9/11 attacks referred to the American left as a fifth column. They were former theater critics who disparaged culture as a political force because they needed to cover up the fact that culture, not politics, was all they really knew how to write about.

Or they were people who hyped the Other because the Other made them so agitated that they had to rocket themselves out of their unease into outer space—one college English teacher, appraising Obama’s autobiographies, actually compared him to Henry James. (Just what the country needed.)

And it almost goes without saying that many of the rapturous optimists, if not most, were people honestly, and in good conscience, wrung out by the badness and deceit of the previous eight years. They poured their despair into this one remarkably iconoclastic-seeming figure. Obama himself, in one of his books, acknowledged that he had long felt he was a screen onto which people projected their own aspirations. He certainly did his share to raise expectations. He had a million accomplices, though, who went even further than he did.

But November elections don’t usher in new epochs. Obama was elected by a freakish perfect storm of crises, not a sudden transformation of attitudes. The economic meltdown that made him now threatens to unmake him.

Obama’s own near-obsessive, Lincoln-like harping on the nation’s divisiveness throughout his campaign was both a warning of the coming storm and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

He has been, from the beginning, the most divisive president since Lincoln. As well he should be. In personal origin, public demeanor, and social agenda, Obama is the most original president the country has ever had. Guns and violent rhetoric (not to mention, God forbid, real violence) are how a certain type of American pays homage to an authentic disruption.

Yet this irrational opposition to Obama now is a small thing roaring. Blinded by their apocalyptic optimism—which turns like a tropism to the opposition’s apocalyptic pessimism—liberals haven’t been able to see beyond it to the more manageable rational resistance. They won’t let Obama do what he does with genius: play politics. Having come to associate politics with its perversion, they considered Obama’s victory a triumph over politics itself. In their eyes, we are not just living in a post-racial society. We are living in a post-political one. No compromise!

Liberals might be more tolerant of Obama’s patient maneuverings and brilliant gamesmanship if they tried to look beyond their surreal expectations. For what Obama is up against is not just stubborn political and cultural realities that do not obligingly turn with the election season. He is contending with something both more prosaic and more overwhelming: tax rates.

At the time of the New Deal, America’s upper tax bracket was 79 percent. When Johnson passed the Great Society legislation, it was roughly the same. Every country in the world that has socialized or nationalized health care either does so by means of high taxes, whether income taxes, a special health-care tax, or some other type of tax. Our upper tax bracket is now 35 percent, period. This at a time when Obama’s health-care legislation would be—along with the New Deal and the Great Society—the third great social transformation in the country’s last hundred years.

Tax “reform” has been the conservative counterattack on FDR’s and LBJ’s social revolutions. People on the right might have criticized Reagan and the two Bushes for expanding government and leaving Medicare and Medicaid intact—despite Reagan’s desire to abolish them. But Reagan’s deep tax cuts for the wealthy have finally brought us close to the fulfillment of his original intention: the near dissolution of Medicare.

Burning buildings and rioting in the streets do not have the power of one change to the tax code. It is one of history’s sharper ironies that taxes have been the instrument of both American revolution and reaction.

In the face of that reality, Obama’s attempt to universalize health care is like trying to carve out a sliver of democratic “socialism”—for want of a better term—in the most capitalist society on earth. It is almost like trying to create a pool of fresh water in the saltwater sea.

But it is hardly impossible. In the speeches he plans to make to the country in the coming weeks, Obama should speak to our unique materialism and link our excesses both to the economic crisis and its consequences, and connect those events to the absence of affordable, universal health care.

And he should recall to people his original intention to tax those making more than $250,000 a year. He should remind the elderly rich, as he speaks to the entire nation, that the overtaxed middle class is footing the bill for their Medicare, even as the rich fail to pay their fair share. Behind closed doors, he should remind the bankers and businessmen he has rescued that the economic crisis is far from over, and that if they want any more goodies, they should publicly back him on health care.

Let him assure people that pre-modern tax rates for the wealthy—i.e., Republican reactionary tactics—won’t stand in the way of government funding, that just as anyone with a household budget knows how to take from here to give to there, health care will find its funding as a sound bill, once made law, finds its footing in society. Let him say whatever he has to say, so long as he keeps reminding people what is truly at stake. And let liberals stop punishing him for disappointing the moral vanity they once felt in declaring a black president the First Man of a New Age.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.