By Amie Parnes - 05/03/12 09:00 AM EDT
Republicans are seeking to portray President Obama as the divider-in-chief, arguing the presidential candidate who trumpeted hope and change four years ago is now running an increasingly negative campaign.
Their chief argument is that Obama's attacks on the wealthy are meant to incite class warfare and a heightened us-versus-them mentality never seen before in present day politics.
Even the lead-up to the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden over the last week was used by a sharp-elbowed Obama to divide the nation, Republicans say.
Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, seized on the theme in recent days.
First he swiped at Obama for using the bin Laden anniversary to divide the nation.
“I think politicizing it and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together,” Romney said.
And on Wednesday, Romney piled on, accusing Obama of “attacking success,” while implying that Obama was intent on dividing Americans on economic issues including tax policy.
“This nation was not made great by Americans castigating and demonizing one another,” Romney said at a campaign stop in Virginia.
As November draws nearer, Republicans caution that Obama will seek to increasingly divide the nation.
“Obama was supposed to be this great unifier, but as the months go by he’s becoming more divisive and the tone has increasingly been one of combativeness,” said one senior GOP aide.
“He manages to divide people on practically every issue he’s talked about from student loans to Osama bin Laden and even Sandra Fluke,” the aide said, referring to the Georgetown Law student who found herself at the heart of the contraception debate after conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut” on the heels of her testimony about contraception on Capitol Hill.
“As soon as President Obama picked up the phone to call her, he made it even more of a divisive issue, something no one thought would happen,” the aide said. “They want to win, that’s all they care about, winning.”
The Obama campaign staunchly disputes the premise, saying Obama has reached across the aisle to work in a bipartisan way throughout his career.
“The president has clearly broken from past Democratic orthodoxy on a number of issues—whether it’s aggressively pursuing an all-of-the-above energy strategy, trade agreements or putting on the table tough cuts and reforms in order to reduce our deficit,” said Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign. “Ultimately, bipartisanship requires a willing partner on both sides and Senator McConnell made clear that Republicans believed it was in their political interests to reject what the president proposes even if they have traditionally supported those ideas.
LaBolt said that Romney has “no claim to the bipartisan mantle” because he “labeled himself the ideal Tea Party candidate and severely conservative” when he committed to economic policies that would “stack the deck against the middle class on behalf of millionaires and billionaires.”
“Americans will have an opportunity in November to send a message to Republicans who have refused to work together,” LaBolt said, adding that it’s “certainly not sound policy but it’s also not a winning political strategy.”
Observers say the GOP strategy of labeling Obama as the divider is part of a long-standing theme that both parties—especially those with challengers-- have used in the past in order to push a sense of optimism and change from the previous administration.
“It sounds great in theory,” said Martin Sweet, an assistant visiting professor of political science at Northwestern University. “And it’s a nice pivot to talk about optimism and offer up a sunnier message on the future.
But Republicans argue Obama really is being more divisive than his predecessors.
“He’s a polarizer and a polarizer with a purpose,” said Republican strategist John Feehery, who also writes a column for The Hill. “He’s trying to polarize the wealthy as holding everyone back. And he’s polarizing the country on other issues like student loans. “He's been good at painting villains while portraying himself as a hero,” Feehery said.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) who has been on the receiving end of Obama’s criticism in recent days after he accused Obama of side-stepping issues on the economy, said Obama tries to “start fights and create friction” in an attempt to distract voters.
“He would like to do as many things to distract folks from jobs numbers and the overall sentiment folks have on the economy,” Buck said.
Democrats labeled President George W. Bush as a divisive leader who tore the country apart and failed to win the 2004 election. Sweet suggests it is not the most effective argument in an election.
“It might help to bring in a few independents and help solidify the base but it has no real heft or policy behind it,” he said.
Democratic strategists claim that with Romney failing to pull in the women vote, and trailing Obama in the polls with Hispanics, African Americans and young voters, they’re trying a variety of tactics. But it isn't working, they say.
“It’s like Fat Albert commenting about weight loss or Bernie Madoff commenting about ethics,” said strategist Chris Lehane, who served as a campaign aide to several Democrats in their presidential bids. “What they are ultimately trying to do is come up with some kind of rebuttal to the president’s very effective offensive. But it’s a fairly weak argument. Obama, by his very nature, is one of the great uniters. As the first African American president he unified the country in a way we’ve never seen. So their argument makes absolutely no sense.”
Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary to former president George W. Bush, said the president's strategy is simple: he's aiming for the middle class and seeking to portray Republicans as having fundamentally different views.
“There's never been any balance coming out of that White House,” Fratto said. “They've always tried to create divisions. We'll see how well that plays in November.”