President Obama’s remarks last week at the National Prayer Breakfast were nothing new — and neither was the controversy they sparked.
From the time he first burst onto the national political stage, with his prime-time keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama has sought to situate himself above the fray. The candidate for the U.S. Senate from Illinois declared that the idea of separate “red” and “blue” regions of the country was a fiction. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America,” Obama famously proclaimed to an arena packed with partisan Democrats united in burning hatred for President George W. Bush. “There’s the United States of America.”
Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama built on this message, portraying himself as a non-partisan “agent of change” who would rise above such petty conflicts as the culture war and push “beyond the bitterness and anger that’s consumed Washington” to build a “coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states.”
As any number of critics have pointed out over the years, Obama’s tendency toward “beyondism” is both a strength and weakness. During his first run for the White House, it helped to create an idealistic aura around the campaign — as if a world-historical Great Statesman was poised to swoop in and fix all of our problems. But once he reached the White House, Obama’s tendency to stake out a lofty rhetorical position began to look like a cynical ploy to conceal a partisan agenda.