09/25/2012 01:52 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Hating the President


As Mitt Romney's path to the White House becomes ever narrower, you can sense a palpable anxiety among some Republicans that they may have to endure another Obama victory. In fact, Republicans are united more than anything by their distaste for Barack Obama, even above their opposition to new taxes. They certainly disagree with his policies, but also can't stand his speaking style, his appearances on ESPN to pick the Final Four, his smile, his college years, or his jump shot. They think he got the presidency on glib style and white guilt, and that he didn't earn it.

In many ways, that's familiar. Liberals hated George W. Bush. To them, he was a pampered frat boy, saved from Vietnam and business failures by his powerful father, and was ushered to the top rung like a boy emperor pulled from behind the curtains. Once in office, his attitude of cowboy entitlement led to war and debt. They think he got presidency on family connections and miscounted Florida ballots, and that he didn't earn it. In fact, it's arguable that underneath all the anti-Bush and anti-Obama feeling is the same grievance: he didn't earn it and doesn't deserve it. (How you earn the presidency other than being elected to it is another question.)

Lots of people on both sides (including me) will think that's a false comparison, but that's not the point. The important truth is that a significant minority is almost always going to hate whomever is president. And before we get nostalgic, it happened to Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR, too.

The interesting question about President Obama is whether some of the harsher opposition is really about the fact that he's black. And I think almost any unbiased analysis would admit that some of it must be. Humans have forever been tribal, and I'd guess every person on this planet feels some preconceived notions about other races, ethnicities and nationalities. Race has been one of the main currents in American history, and it did not just suddenly drop out of everyone's brain on November 5, 2008.

But it's also possible to overstate the impact of these attitudes on the politics of America from 2008 to 2012. A lot of the venom would have been directed at any progressive Democrat in the White House. For me, one thought exercise demonstrates the point: Imagine Hillary Clinton as president, pushing national health care reform, ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell and appointing pro-choice Supreme Court justices. Is there any doubt that the vitriol at town hall meetings in West Virginia would be just as strong? (And if you want to attribute that to sexism, which would certainly be an element, try the experiment with John Kerry.)

The impact of race on attitudes about the President Obama is widespread -- in that it probably affects everyone's view at least a little bit (from old-fashioned racism to pride in America's progress). And feelings about his race, and the increasing diversity of America, likely increases the intensity of opposition to the president among a substantial minority of voters. But I think it is the negativity of politics which drives much of the reaction; the fact that our presidential elections are adversarial, winner-take-all contests that almost require candidates to try to lower the public's opinion of their opponent.

I'm not suggesting some change is needed. Long before even Caesar and Pompey, struggles for power have been hard-fought. And legislating against human nature is very difficult, so any attempt to develop rules that favor civility in a contest for power is likely to fail. There are lots of things to change about the political process, but I don't think trying to force it to be genteel with new rules will work.

Each of us can only look at our own behavior, and the degree to which we pile on leaders we did not support. Partisans, and that includes most people who are politically active, spend each presidency collecting evidence to reinforce our original preference. We downplay the accomplishments of those we oppose, and forgive the failings of the ones we like. (Fifteen percent of North Carolina Republicans believe Romney is more responsible for bin Laden's death than the president who ordered the raid, according to a recent PPP poll, and another 56% weren't sure which candidate should get more credit for it.) Over time, that natural tendency to rationalize creates a kind of general disgust -- which leads, in some people at least, to hatred. So those who can't stand the hostility directed at their champions, should remember it when the tables are turned.