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Obama's Second Term: More (and More Presidential) Polarization

By Francis Wilkinson
January 07, 2013 1:23 PM EST

President Barack Obama's anticipated nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary shows how the polarization of Obama's second term might differ from that of his first. His first term was polarizing despite Obama's efforts. His second could be polarizing because of them.

After a robust re-election (and not only in the Electoral College; Obama won by 5 million votes), Obama is bound to look at lockstep Republican opposition in a different light. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham described the selection of Hagel, who departed from the Republican foreign policy fold as soon as the Iraq War went south, as an "in your face" move.

So it is. As Peter Beinart argues convincingly, the Hagel nomination represents both an affront to Republicans, who have never honestly reckoned with the disasters of George W. Bush's foreign policy, and to Democrats, who have spent decades crafting foreign policy designed in part to avoid inciting aggression not from abroad, but from Republicans.

Obama may or may not believe Hagel is the best person for the job. But he certainly is mindful of the challenge he has just laid down. Unless opponents can restrict the debate on Hagel to his views -- real or imagined -- on Israel, they risk litigating the disastrous policies that Hagel rejected and his most vociferous critics embraced.

An oddly similar battle awaits on the debt ceiling. Obama says that, unlike 2011, he will not negotiate on the debt ceiling. To hold that line, he will have to explain -- repeatedly -- that spending is initiated in the House and passed by Congress. In other words, the battle presents an opportunity to stick Republicans with their share of blame for the deficit, a reckoning they have evaded as assiduously as the one on Iraq and Afghanistan. To prevail, Obama will have to isolate Republicans with the short end of public approval: In short, polarize the debate.

This is hardly ideal. Republicans currently represent a minority of American voters -- but a very large minority. Obama's first term was ugly in part because Republicans worked so relentlessly, sometimes mindlessly, to break him. (One of their favorite criticisms, ironically, was that he was too polarizing, a claim that applies to roughly every corner of U.S. politics.) If they were fierce enough, they could generally count on Obama to retreat.

From the Hagel nomination and debt-ceiling fight, we'll know whether that era has ended. The question is no longer whether Obama can defeat the Republicans; the election proved he could. The question is whether the tables have turned and Obama will use the power of his office to intensify polarization -- with the goal of breaking an increasingly brittle opposition party.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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