"The Presidency" column appears in U.S. News Weekly.
The battle over sequestration—automatic cuts in federal spending—is dominating the news media today, but that's not what is inflaming political passions around the country.
What is stirring up intense emotion is a snarl of cultural issues that have divided Americans for many years—gun control, gay marriage, immigration, and, more recently, climate change. Americans are still split into liberal and conservative camps on these questions, and simply raising one of them can be enough to generate anger, unleash vitriol, spark protests, produce a cycle of reactions and counter-reactions in the blogosphere, and spike a flood of comments in social media from Facebook to Twitter.
It amounts to a return of the culture wars that had a big effect on our politics, our elections, and our country for many years, particularly during the 1960's through the 1980's. These battles involve social issues that reflect who we are as a nation, what our values are, and what we want our values to be.
Take gun control. President Barack Obama and the Democrats are eager to ban the sale of military-style assault weapons and to impose background checks on all would-be gun purchasers. Republicans are hesitant or outright opposed to these steps, arguing that the Constitution guarantees citizens the right to bear arms. But there's no doubting the intensity of feelings that gun control arouses on all sides.
Part of the reason is that the issue hits hard on a personal level. Americans were shocked by the massacre of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school in December, and this brought the gun control debate to a furious level. Everyday people wondered how such a thing could happen, and how it could be prevented in the future.
Gun control advocates seized the opportunity to renew their efforts to pass legislation in Congress. Gun control opponents have been just as intense, pushing back hard. Meanwhile, gun sales have soared in some locations, suggesting that many Americans are being motivated to buy firearms because they fear that the government may eventually take them away. This may be an overreaction, but it reflects the strong emotions that this issue raises.
Even a photo of Obama shooting skeet at Camp David, which was released by the White House recently, caused a furor. Many opponents of gun control said the photo was bogus, designed to make it appear that Obama is familiar with gun culture when he's not. The image and the criticism went viral almost immediately.
The other three wedge issues—immigration, same-sex marriage, and climate change—inspire similarly intense feelings.
But Obama says he is intent on pushing Congress to take action on all four, even if battles over the budget continue to erupt well into the future. Obama, more confident and aggressive since his re-election in November, is serving notice that he will resort to executive action without the approval of Congress, if his adversaries on Capitol Hill block his agenda there.
He has already done this in a number of cases, such as by making it easier for young undocumented workers to stay in the United States legally. Signaling his intent to do more, the president met this week to discuss immigration reform with two important legislators, Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona.
On gay issues, Obama seems ever more inclined to make history. This week, the Justice Department filed a brief supporting the rights of same-sex marriage couples, an issue that remains an emotional one in many states. This is sure to provoke a strong reaction from groups opposing the Administration's position.
And on the topic of climate change, Obama's Environmental Protection Agency is proceeding with steps to restrict emissions from coal-fired power plants. Such a move would cause a wave of support from environmentalists but also a wave of opposition from the coal industry and other interests.
All this seems guaranteed to further polarize the country. A sustained fight over any of these issues could easily weaken Obama across the board if hard feelings spread to other matters and if his opponents join forces against him. But the wedge issues seem likely to be part of our lives for a long time to come, whatever the consequences.
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Facebook and Twitter.