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NEWS ANALYSIS

In healthcare debate, Obama finds trailblazers face imposing obstacles

A Republican pollster suggests that the high-octane demonstrations, complete with weapons and Hitler references, reflect a much more polarized nation.

August 20, 2009|Mark Z. Barabak

One thing hasn't changed in the Age of Obama: Presidents who try big things face a big backlash.

Scenes of gun-toting protesters and swastika-wielding demonstrators speak -- loudly -- to the passions stirred by Obama's attempt to refashion the country's healthcare system, after having already engineered a vast intervention in the sagging economy.

Some of the antagonism is undoubtedly race-related.

The Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, which tracks hate groups, reports a dramatic surge in the anti-government ranks of the militia movement over the past year or so, when Obama emerged as a favorite to become the first black occupant of the White House. Threats against Obama have increased 400% since he took office, according to Ronald Kessler, an investigative journalist who has written a book on the president's protective corps, the Secret Service.

"Clearly, this president has set off a real rage," said Mark Potok, who directs the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. "Certain people look around and see this is not the country their white Christian forefathers built, and they are angry. They look at the president, see a black face and it reminds them of everything that has changed, in many of their minds, for the worse."

But racism, itself an incendiary charge, accounts for only a part of the push back.

As presidential scholars point out, the law that governs the natural world -- every action has an equal and opposite reaction -- also applies to the world of politics.

"All the presidents whom we view as important faced ferocious and vituperative criticism, even [George] Washington," said George C. Edwards, a presidential expert at Texas A&M University. "When you challenge interests, or at least seem to upset the status quo, interests respond. The bigger the threat to their interests, as they see it, the more fierce the criticism."

It is certainly unsettling to see protesters wave Nazi insignia and signs depicting the president with Hitler's mustache. The anger -- one man was arrested last week outside a Hagerstown, Md., healthcare forum holding a sign reading "Death to Obama" -- seems all the more menacing given the president's skin color and the country's violent history of racial tension.

Yet the demonstrations break no ground in either poor taste or hyperbole. President George W. Bush was routinely portrayed by critics as a warmonger, a dunce and even Hitler. President Clinton was accused, among other things, of orchestrating the murder of his friend and Commerce secretary, Ron Brown; covering up a drug-running ring in rural Arkansas, and complicity in the Oklahoma City courthouse bombing.

What is different this time, Potok said, is the involvement of "mainstream aiders and abettors" like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who promoted the false charge that Obama's health plan would euthanize senior citizens, as well as widely watched TV personalities who question Obama's citizenship and, thus, his legitimacy as president. Back in the Clinton days, those kinds of fabrications played mostly on the fringes of political debate and dark corners of the Internet.

Jan van Lohuizen, a Republican pollster who worked for Bush, suggests that the more outlandish assertions, amplified by some of the often-hyperbolic news coverage of town hall protests, reflect the country's increased polarization.

"You used to have bounds around foreign policy," he said, referring to the old notion that politics stops at the water's edge, which, today, seems almost quaint. "You used to maybe disagree on domestic policy, but at least you read the same books, saw the same movies, read the same newspapers. We don't do that anymore."

The White House has been content to ignore the more egregious attacks on Obama, mindful, as van Lohuizen put it, that it scarcely helps Republicans when "the screamers" are heard, fairly or not, as the voice of the GOP.

Asked about the armed protesters appearing outside Obama's recent campaign-style events, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded blandly: "There are laws that govern firearms that are done state or locally. Those laws don't change when the president comes to your state or locality."

Obama, for his part, minimizes concerns. "I've got the best protection in the world," he told the New York Times in February 2008, discussing fears some had even then about his safety. "So stop worrying."

(Not incidentally, Obama has been protected by the Secret Service since May 2007, the earliest a presidential prospect has ever been assigned coverage.)

Safety aside, it is not just Democrats or Obama defenders who lament the demonization of the president and the failure, as proffered in the last campaign, to elevate the tone of political debate

"It hurts everybody," said David Winston, an advisor to the House and Senate Republican leadership. "It makes the political process less connected to people's lives and therefore makes it harder to get at the problems they face. . . . This is a discussion of about where our country goes. Not who can call somebody the worst name."

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

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