The GOP Can Obstruct Obama, But It Can't Obstruct Change

Republican attempts to make Obama fail won't halt progressive social trends.

By + More
President Barack Obama speaks while addressing the Planned Parenthood National Conference in Washington on April 26, 2013.

Politics isn't supposed to be personal. It gets that way, of course, particularly in the heat of the waning weeks of a campaign, when candidates throw all sorts of personal (euphemistically called "character") accusations against each other. But once the candidates get into office, there is a reasonable expectation that they will make decisions based on their own judgment, on the desires of their constituents or even according to the demands of special interest groups that have successfully pressured or intimidated lawmakers.

It really just seems too craven and childish that a member of the House or Senate would cast a vote based on frustrating the success of a U.S. president for its own sake. But that, according to a Republican senator, is precisely what happened when the Senate failed last month to extend gun purchase background checks to people who buy firearms at gun shows or on the Internet. Said Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, according to the Times-Herald:

In the end it didn't pass because we're so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Later, Toomey walked back his comments a bit – but the walk-back is only more disturbing in terms of what is says about our political dialogue. It wasn't just GOP senators, but rank-and-file Republicans across the country who feel this way, Toomey said, explaining, "The toughest thing to do in politics is to do the right thing when your supporters think the right thing is something else."

The theme has been percolating for some time. The practice on the Hill to deny the president even the most non-controversial things – such as nominations for U.S. Marshalls – shows that there is more going on here than an effort to stop some wildly liberal agenda.

Republicans repeatedly use the word "fail" in their characterization of this president and this administration, hoping, perhaps, that is will become inexorably linked with the word "Obama" in history. This was petty, but somewhat understandable, when the GOP had a political goal in mind – the defeat of Obama for a second term. But now that he's back, what is the point? And why?

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Most of us would like to believe it has nothing to do with race, that Obama's election by definition means that the country has evolved past that sort of visceral bigotry. And yet it is impossible not to consider race as a factor.

It's not that Congress, or even the country, is full of a bunch of rabid bigots who hurl racist epithets or walk around in white sheets on their days off. It's more subtle than that. There are people, on and off the Hill, who clearly still have a hard time seeing Barack Obama as president. They talk about Obama not being a "grown up" – coming dangerously close to referring to the first half-African-American president as "boy" – and show none of the deference historically afforded to the person holding the office.

Some of it is also a growing disenchantment and disrespect for people in public service, a sentiment that has gone beyond the public at-large and into the halls of government itself. And some of it has to do with Obama's relative youth; it's indeed hard, understandably so, for some of the senior members of Congress to deal with the fact that someone who was in the U.S. Senate for just a few years managed to make it to the Oval Office.

But there is another level of resentment going on, manifested in a number of ways. The criticism of Obama as "arrogant and "distant carries an entirely different tone than the characterizations by the left of George W. Bush as "swaggering" or inelegant with his language. In Obama's case, "arrogant" suggests he's not staying in his proper place. Paradoxically, Obama is also accused of not being a "strong leader," a role that tends to require a certain level of confidence and pushiness. Maybe even "arrogance."

Do Republicans in and out of Congress really hate Obama? Or do they just hate what he represents, a country that is undergoing dramatic demographic and social change? Vying to make Obama fail may succeed in tainting the legacy of the first mixed-race president. But it doesn't stop the changing face of America. Latinos, other minorities and women are becoming more powerful, both in numbers and in political representation. Gay marriage is becoming more acceptable. That may be world-shaking for social conservatives. But making Obama fail won't halt the trend.