Editorial: Take a Tennessee senator's friendly advice

Posted on November 1, 2009

The post-partisan era that many hoped would come about with Barack Obama's election as president and the urgent need to tackle serious domestic and foreign policy issues is still a ways off, possibly not even on the horizon. In fact, trying to resolve some of those pressing issues has made national politics more contentious. Into this fray stepped U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander to offer advice that "I hope will be taken as a friendly suggestion to President Obama and his White House: Don't create an enemies list." Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who once served in a low-level position in the White House during President Nixon's term, was warning of what might result if Obama's practice of calling out those who oppose his policies becomes more intimidating than merely challenging. Alexander's remarks on Oct. 21 drew predictably partisan responses. Other observers noted differences in the two presidencies. Obama's criticism has been open, while Nixon's staff operated secretively. This misses Alexander's point: His was a warning, not necessarily an accusation. He said, "I have an uneasy feeling, only 10 months into this new administration, that we're beginning to see symptoms of this same kind of animus developing in the Obama administration." Alexander cited what Politico.com called the neutering of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has questioned the president's health care and climate-change proposals, although it supported Obama's stimulus package. There also is the recent announcement that the administration would treat Fox News as "part of the opposition." Alexander said he and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, had been called out on a White House communications director's blog for raising questions about the 18 White House appointees, or "czars," who do not have to be confirmed by the Senate. Alexander said the Nixon administration began with accusations and name-calling that seemed well within the bounds of political gamesmanship that dates back two centuries. But, he said, the politics degenerated into a full-blown enemies list that included members of Congress, labor unions, various news organizations and actors. Those who viewed Alexander's comments as only critical also missed the point that he encouraged cooperation on several pending issues: health care reform, Social Security solvency and clean energy. He also praised Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for backing charter schools, which "could be the domestic equivalent of President Nixon going to China." Obama currently is in a difficult situation, with opposition from conservatives who believe he is attempting too much and from liberals who believe he is not attempting enough. It is understandable that he would confront his accusers. Nevertheless, take the friendly warning from the senator from Tennessee at face value and let the rhetoric - however heated it might become - stay in the open, for the integrity of the White House and the American people.