Can President Obama Unite the United States?

Now that Barack Obama has been elected president of the United States, one hopes he will be able to carry through on his campaign promise of bringing all kinds of Americans together — red states and blue states, Republicans and Democrats, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives, men and women, young and old. Heaven knows we Americans need bringing together.
George W. Bush recognized this need eight years ago when he told us he was “a uniter, not a divider.” That Bush failed to unite, no one will deny. Partly it was his own fault, but mostly it was the fault of the irreconcilable differences that divide the Americans he had hoped to unite. How can anybody unite the following groups, all of whom are present in today’s America in great and well-organized numbers: conservative Christians and secularists, pro-lifers and pro-choicers, those who consider same-sex marriage a fundamental human right and those who consider it an absurdity and abomination? This is not to mention those who are pro and con on the question of gun control, or those who are pro-military and anti-military.
Cultural divisions — that is to say, divisions regarding beliefs and values and morality — run very wide and very deep in today’s American society. Bush could not heal the divisions. Will President Obama be able to do so?
Obama made an interesting start earlier this year when he endorsed the United States Supreme Court ruling that held that private ownership of guns is constitutionally protected by the Second Amendment. It looks like Obama wants to take a middle-ground position that will allow him to say to the pro-gun people, “Your right to own guns will never be taken away from you,” while at the same time saying to the gun-control people, “I will not gratify your dreams of outright prohibition or confiscation, yet we can impose certain reasonable but limited restrictions on the sale and distribution of guns.” It goes without saying that a compromise along these lines won’t satisfy vocal fanatics at either extreme of the gun spectrum, but perhaps it will satisfy the vast and relatively silent mid-spectrum majority.
When it comes to the military, Obama will have a more difficult row to hoe. If he withdraws rapidly from Iraq and, as a result, the situation there deteriorates (as John McCain has cautioned it may), conservatives will detest him. If he doesn’t withdraw rapidly enough, his own liberal supporters will detest him. In Afghanistan, if he orders a great enough “surge” to finish the job, his semi-pacifist supporters will feel he has betrayed them; if he doesn’t, conservatives will feel he has betrayed America. And what kind of military budget will he propose? A fat one will enrage liberals. A thin one will enrage conservatives. In military affairs, he can be a “uniter not a divider” only if he gets lucky — very lucky indeed.
But what about abortion? Here the going gets stickier still. During the presidential campaign, Obama convinced some apparently pro-life people that an Obama administration will actually reduce the abortion rate in a significant way. To believe this of a politician who is thoroughly committed to (as the cant phrase has it) “a woman’s right to choose” requires, it seems to me, a strong act of faith fortified by a great amount of self-deception. Obama, after all, has promised the following: to sign FOCA, to have a pro-Roe litmus test for Supreme Court justices, and to have taxpayers pay for abortions for financially needy women. If he retreats from any of these promises, he will infuriate all his pro-abortion supporters. And if he doesn’t retreat from them, he will infuriate everybody in the pro-life movement.
And what about governmental legitimization of homosexuality? His supporters will get very unhappy with him unless he repeals the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And moral-religious conservatives will get equally unhappy with him if he does repeal the policy. And same-sex marriage? Almost certainly Democrats in Congress will make an attempt to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act (which allows a state to refuse to acknowledge same-sex marriages contracted outside its boundaries). If President Obama doesn’t want to alienate his liberal followers, he will have to support such an attempt. And of course these followers will expect him to appoint to the Supreme Court justices who believe that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. All of this, it goes without saying, will outrage moral-religious conservatives.
And so it seems that President Obama, like President Bush before him, will find that it’s much easier to talk about being a uniter-not-a-divider than actually to become one.
But to this pessimistic conclusion I will add one qualifier. Obama is a brilliant politician, and — like all brilliant politicians — he’s an opportunist. If he is sufficiently ruthless in his opportunism, he could decide to govern as a centrist, casting aside the left-wing supporters who brought him as far as he is today. During the primaries, he had a two-fold political base: African-Americans plus upper-middle-class white liberals. While unlikely, it is not absolutely impossible that he will toss his white liberals aside and govern from a new base: African-Americans plus middle-of-the-road whites. This would of course be a great act of ingratitude to his white liberal friends, but Obama would not be the first politician to be ungrateful to those who put him in office. (Think of Richard III and Buckingham in Shakespeare’s play.) Stung, liberals would accuse him of base “treachery,” but he could describe his conduct — accurately enough — as patriotic “pragmatism.”
If he is pragmatic/treacherous enough to dump his liberal friends once he’s in the White House, it is possible — just barely possible — that he could actually succeed in uniting the nation.


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...