In 1948, President Harry Truman took to the railways to decry "the do-nothing Republican Congress." His outbursts against the GOP helped him win the White House later that year.
The problem was that Mr. Truman's rhetorical indignation was grounded in fiction. The Republican Congress with which he was dealing was highly productive, passing many bills related to foreign and domestic economic policy that he signed into law, including the Marshall Plan, the National Security Act that created the Defense Department and the National Security Council, and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.
Yet now, President Obama has taken a page from the Truman playbook. He is flying around the country, popping up from Galesburg to Jacksonville, and seems to think if he insults House Republicans often enough, he somehow will get what he wants in Washington. Or does he?
Recently he has called them "deadbeats" and decried the "endless parade of distractions" sparked by that most amorphous and, apparently, contemptible of enemies, "Washington."
The president is weary of what he calls "stale debates" and says that "the world can't wait for Congress to get its act together." He summarizes, "With an endless distraction of political posturing and phony scandals ... Washington keeps taking its eye off the ball."
Well, let's consider what Mr. Obama seems to be implying about his Republican opponents, at least if his rhetoric is taken at face-value: If you agree with me, you're wise. If you disagree with me, you're either ignorant or worse. You are merely mouthing partisan talking points, given that my proposals self-evidently are beneficent and inherently sound. I will describe you in unflattering, demeaning, and caustic terms, and then return to Washington, where I know you'll simply throw up your hands, give into me, and all will be well. And you'll also shut up about all the dubious things my administration has been doing, right?
He knows his gambit won't be effective on Capitol Hill. Instead, he knows it might be effective in mobilizing partisan Democrats and distracting many Americans from news reports of his recent cascade of failures and foibles, at home and abroad. As a rhetorical matter, whining and blaming excuses the speaker from responsibility and seriousness. It is a cheap and tested way to build a grudge among the already disaffected.
"Phony scandals?" As noted in the Washington Times, "Of the many scandals from which to choose, the president didn't specify which ones he considers ‘phony' - the administration's ‘talking points' about the deaths of four Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Libya, the abuse of power by the IRS and the possible involvement of a political appointee, the disclosure of classified NSA surveillance programs, the Justice Department's wide-ranging investigations of the media, or other controversies."
"Political posturing?" House Republicans have offered myriad bills to foster economic growth, strengthen the nation's military, bolster the middle income, modernize entitlements, and reduce the growing behemoth that is the federal government. In Mr. Obama's world, apparently all such initiatives are deliberately cynical and motivated by little more than a carefully-hidden desire for political advantage.
Mr. Obama might know something about the latter. For example, Slate's William Saletan reportedthat the 2010 health care summit, hosted by Mr. Obama in the White House, was little more than a well-choreographed sham. Summarizing four independent news reports, he writes of their conclusions: "Obama never believed he could persuade Republicans. He had already decided the shape of the bill. He called the meeting to create an illusion of outreach, put Republicans on the spot, discredit their ideas, and embolden Democrats."
In a perceptive piece in The Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger writes, "The political left, historically inclined by ideological belief to public policy that is imposed rather than legislated, will support Mr. Obama's expansion of authority. The rest of us should not. The U.S. has a system of checks and balances. Mr. Obama is rebalancing the system toward a national-leader model that is alien to the American tradition."
These are ominous words, and immediately will be dismissed by the president's defenders as overstated. Yet the record indicates otherwise, and any cursory study of authoritarianism will surely see its incipience in the Obama administration.
Every president has stage-managed events. Every president gets frustrated by the other party and its congressional leadership. Every president scores political points off his adversaries. But not every president substitutes slander for dialog and a show of condescending annoyance for honest compromise.
The "do-nothing" Congress of 1947-48 did a lot, because despite his overheated campaign bombast, Harry Truman actually worked with the Republicans in the House and Senate. Mr. Obama has about three and one-half years to show if he can do the same.
Rob Schwarzwalder is senior vice president at the Family Research Council.