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Obama Says Bitter Partisan Debate Driving Cynicism Of Public

By Justin Sink, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said the U.S. has become fragmented by highly partisan and bitter political debate, which has driven portions of the public away from voting and made it harder to act on national interests.

American political institutions have become “detached from how people live on a day-to-day basis,” deepening gridlock and reinforcing cynicism, he said.

“There’s this big gap between who we are as a people and how our politics expresses itself,” Obama said in a podcast interview with comedian Marc Maron that was recorded Friday and released Monday morning. “Part of that has to do with gerrymandering, and super PACs, and lobbyists, and a media that is so splintered now that we’re not in a common conversation.”

Obama, who was elected in part on his promise to change the tone and the debate in Washington, said he’s spent much of his six and a half years in office looking for a way to break the political stalemate.

One area where divisiveness has stymied action is on gun control, he said. Obama said he was “disgusted” after Congress refused to enact tighter controls on firearms after a school massacre in Connecticut in 2012 and that he sees no chance of action in response to last week’s mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

“Unfortunately, the grip of the NRA on Congress is extremely strong,” he said, referring to the National Rifle Association, the nation’s biggest lobby for gun manufacturers and owners. “I don’t foresee any legislative action being taken in this Congress.”

The Charleston shootings, in which a 21-year-old white man, Dylann Storm Roof, has been charged, also demonstrate that the nation hasn’t fully come to grips with dealing with its legacy of racism.

While the U.S. has made “incontrovertible” progress on race relations, the issue is deeper than changing norms of overt discrimination, like the use of racial epithets in public, Obama said.

“Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior,” Obama said. Still, it’s wrong to say nothing has changed or that no further progress on race relations can be made, he said.

“You want to get to those decent, well-meaning Americans who would agree with that, but when it gets translated into politics it gets all confused,” Obama said. “Trying to bridge that gap between I think the good impulses of the overwhelming majority of Americans and how our politics expresses itself continues to be the biggest challenge.”

Obama said that his inability to make headway on gun control was “the exception rather than the rule” because in other areas where Congress has proven unwilling to act, he has been able to pursue his agenda through regulation.

Part of what Obama said he learned during his time in office was the importance of communicating policy priorities “in a way that is digestible, easily enough for the public that you can move the needle of public opinion.”

He said the decision to do an interview with Maron, a stand-up comedian known both for his acerbic and neurotic tendencies and an ability to draw intimate conversations out of his guests, was part of a strategy to reach new audiences.

The president also acknowledged a “mythology about me about being very professorial and removed” in his relationships with lawmakers in Washington.

“I think it has to do with me not schmoozing enough in Washington because I got two kids,” he said. “It’s true that I don’t do the cocktail circuit and some of the backslapping.”
Despite his admitted reluctance to play the political game — and his continuing frustrations with Congress — Obama said he believed he was a better president now than he was earlier in his term.

“I’ve been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls,” he said. “And I emerged and I lived. And that’s always a — that’s such a liberating feeling, right?”

(c)2015 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Comedian Marc Maron’s WTF podcast has been one of the most popular on iTunes for a few years now. He often interviews high-profile guests like Louis C.K., Judd Apatow, and Terry Gross. But this week he landed the biggest get of his career: The President of the United States. On June 19, 2015, President Obama went to the tiny Los Angeles garage where Maron records his podcast for an hour-long interview. He is photographed in his garage studio later in the day. (Barbara Davidson/Los AngelesTimes/TNS)

Is Democracy Unraveling?

WASHINGTON — The world’s democracies, perhaps especially our own, face a peculiar set of contradictions that are undermining faith in public endeavor and unraveling old loyalties.

There is a decline of trust in traditional political parties but also a rise in partisanship. A broad desire for governments to reduce the levels of economic insecurity and expand opportunity is constrained by a loss of confidence in the capacity of government to succeed. Intense demands for change are accompanied by fears that much of the change that is occurring will make life worse for individuals and families.

These crosscurrents are undercutting political leaders and decimating political parties with long histories. In Europe, movements on the far right and left (along with new regional parties) gain traction with disaffected citizens. Concerns about immigration reflect uneasiness among some over the social and cultural tremors in their nations. At the same time, discontent about the economic decline that afflicts regions not sharing in the global economy’s bounty calls forth protest against the privileged and the well-connected. In both cases, anger is the dominant emotion.

The convergence of these forces is especially powerful in Britain, which holds a national election on May 7 and where neither of the long-dominant Conservative and Labour Parties is likely to win a parliamentary majority. In 1951, the two parties together secured 96.8 percent of all the votes cast. This year, they are struggling to reach a combined 70 percent.

In Scotland, long a Labour stronghold, the pro-independence Scottish National Party could take as many as 50 of the region’s 59 seats, which would block British Labour leader Ed Miliband from securing a majority. But Miliband, who has run a better campaign than his foes expected, could still end up in power, partly because Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives are hemorrhaging votes to the UK Independence Party, which is critical of both immigration and the European Union.

In Greece, the traditional social democratic Pasok party was nearly destroyed after the country’s economic collapse. The left-wing Syriza party took power this year because of deep frustration with economic austerity and anger over the terms being set by the European Union for a financial rescue. Far-right parties have gained ground in France and even in usually moderate Scandinavia.

In the United States, partisan splits have rarely been so deep and acrimony across party lines so intense. But these feelings don’t come from wildly positive views about the parties voters embrace. In a widely discussed paper released earlier this month, Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster, Emory University political scientists, noted that “one of the most important trends in American politics over the past several decades has been the rise of negative partisanship in the electorate.”

It occurs, they write, when “supporters of each party perceive supporters of the opposing party as very different from themselves in terms of their social characteristics and fundamental values.” Yes, our current form of partisanship leads us to dislike not only the other side’s politicians but even each other.

And the frustrations voters feel provide each camp with ideological rocks to throw at their adversaries. In a PRRI/Brookings survey I was involved with in 2013, two findings locked horns: 63 percent of Americans said government should be doing more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, but 59 percent also believed government had grown bigger because it had become involved in things people should do for themselves. We want government to do more about injustice, but we also seem to want it smaller.

Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, argues in the current issue of The American Prospect that this tension is partly explained by a widespread view that “special interests” have too much of a hold on government. He argues that voters “are ready for government to help — if the stables are cleaned.”

This makes good sense, but in the United States, as elsewhere, little of what’s happening in politics is reweaving frayed social bonds. The title of Princeton University historian Daniel T. Rodgers’ revelatory 2011 book, Age of Fracture, captured what’s happening to us. In our era, he wrote, “Identities become fluid and elective,” and if the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were a time of political and social “consolidation,” the dominant tendency now is toward “disaggregation.”

This is a big problem for self-government, since aggregating sustainable majorities is the first task of politicians in democratic countries. They are not doing a very good job, and the unfolding 2016 campaign doesn’t inspire much confidence that they’ll do better.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne. 

Photo: Keith Ivey via Flickr

Report: GOP-Pushed War On Voting Could Impact More Than Five Million Americans

A comprehensive new study by the Brennan Center for Justice is shedding light on a troubling new set of electoral laws that tighten restrictions on who can vote in the United States and how they can do it. The wave of new laws — almost all of which were sponsored and supported by Republican state legislators — promise to impact more than 5 million voters, the majority of whom are young, minority, and low-income voters, and many of the laws seem to be motivated by partisan politics.

Bills requiring photo ID to vote have been introduced in 34 states this year alone. The GOP has long raised vague concerns about “voter fraud” — during the 2008 election, the activist group ACORN was constantly blamed, without much evidence, for trying to steal the election on Obama’s behalf — but the push to wall off citizens from the ballot box has been turbocharged since the Tea Party-dominated Republican Party swept through last fall’s elections.

Seven states — Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin — have passed restrictive voter ID laws, with Republicans spearheading all but the Rhode Island bill. Texas goes as far to allow concealed weapons licensees for voting, but bars the use of student IDs. Similarly, in Wisconsin’s bill originally banned the use of student IDs to vote, but has since been amended to permit student IDs that meet a strict criteria. As a result, the University of Wisconsin system must spend and estimated $1.1 million to issue new ID cards to be used for voting purposes.

The bills threaten the voting rights of more than 21 million American citizens who do not posses a government-issued photo ID — remember, a Social Security card doesn’t count — and they are likely to especially affect the kind of low-income voters who tend to support Democrats. In Colorado, a bill that required voters to provide proof of citizenship struck many as anti-immigrant scare tactics, especially after critics debunked Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s that up to 11,805 non-citizens were registered to vote. Even if the false number was accurate, however, it’s still a tiny of fraction of the population in a state where more than 1.5 million people voted in last fall’s U.S. Senate election.

Other new laws are focused on making it more difficult to register to vote. Republican legislators in seven states have proposed bills that would sharply restrict voter registration drives by adding several layers of bureaucratic regulation to voter registration groups. So far the bills have been signed into law in Texas and Florida, and the impact has been felt immediately: Shortly after the Florida bill’s enactment, the all-volunteer Florida League of Women Voters shut down its operations in the state, declaring that the new law “imposes an undue burden on groups such as ours that work to register voters.”

According to U.S. Census Bureau data from the 2004 and 2008 election cycles, African-American and Hispanic citizens are more than twice as likely to register to vote through the type of voter registration drives that the Florida and Texas laws target. The new flurry of bills detailed in the report, which also include restrictions on early voting and crackdowns on the ability to sign up to vote on election day, are why former President Bill Clinton told the Brennan Center that Republicans “are trying to make the 2012 electorate look more like that 2010 electorate than the 2008 electorate.”

And it’s proof that elections have consequences. The United States has been steadily tearing down barriers to voting over the past few decades, but much of that progress has been undone in the brief time since the 2010 elections. It surely cannot be a coincidence that about a quarter of the bills have been introduced by newly elected Republicans. If newly elected legislators cannot find solutions to their constituents economic problems, they can always do the next best thing: making it harder for their constituents to vote them out of office.