During the election campaign, Barack Obama sought to appeal to the best instincts of the electorate, to a post-partisan sentiment that he said would reinvigorate our democracy. He ran on a platform of reconciliation—of getting beyond "old labels" of right and left, red and blue states, and forging compromises based on shared values.
President Obama's Inaugural was a hopeful day, with an estimated 1.8 million people on the National Mall celebrating the election of America's first African-American president. The level of enthusiasm, the anticipation and the promise of something better could not have been more palpable.
And yet, it has not been realized. Not at all.
Rather than being a unifier, Mr. Obama has divided America on the basis of race, class and partisanship. Moreover, his cynical approach to governance has encouraged his allies to pursue a similar strategy of racially divisive politics on his behalf.
By dividing America, Mr. Obama has brought our government to the brink of a crisis of legitimacy, compromising our ability to address our most important policy issues.
We say this with a heavy heart. Both of us share the president's stated vision of what America can and should be. The struggle for equal rights has animated both of our lives. Both of us were forged politically during the crucible of the civil rights movement. Having worked in the South during the civil rights movement, and on behalf of the ground-breaking elections of African-American mayors such as David Dinkins, Harold Washington and Emanuel Cleaver, we were deeply moved by Mr. Obama's election.
The first hint that as president Mr. Obama would be willing to interject race into the political dialogue came last July, when he jumped to conclusions about the confrontation between Harvard Prof. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates and the Cambridge police.
During a press conference, the president said that the "Cambridge police acted stupidly," and he went on to link the arrest with the "long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately."
In truth, the Gates incident appears to have had nothing to do with race—a Cambridge review committee that investigated the incident ruled on June 30 that there was fault on both sides.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) has said the president told him in a closed-door meeting that he would not move to ssecure the border with Mexico unless and until Congress reached a breakthrough on comprehensive immigration reform. That's another indication Mr. Obama is willing to continue to play politics with hot-button issues.
Add in the lawsuit against the Arizona immigration law and it's clear the Obama administration is willing to run the risk of dividing the American people along racial and ethnic lines to mobilize its supporters—particularly Hispanic voters, whose backing it needs in the fall midterm elections and beyond.
As the Washington Post reported last week, two top White House strategists, speaking on condition of anonymity, have indicated that "the White House plans to use the immigration debate to punish the GOP and aggressively seek the Latino vote in 2012."
On an issue that has gotten much less attention, but is potentially just as divisive, the Justice Department has pointedly refused to prosecute three members of the New Black Panther Party for voter intimidation at the polls on Election Day 2008.
It is the job of the Department of Justice to protect all American voters from voter discrimination and voter intimidation—whether committed by the far right, the far left, or the New Black Panthers. It is unacceptable for the Department of Justice to continue to stonewall on this issue.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama's campaign emphasized repeatedly that his minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was being unfairly stereotyped because of racially incendiary sound bites that allegedly did not reflect the totality of his views. In the Gates incident and others, Mr. Obama has resorted to similar forms of stereotyping.
Even the former head of the Civil Rights Commission, Mary Frances Berry, acknowledged that the Obama administration has taken to polarizing America around the issue of race as a means of diverting attention away from other issues, saying: "the charge of racism is proving to be an effective strategy for Democrats. . . . Having one's opponent rebut charges of racism is far better than discussing joblessness."
The president had a unique opportunity to focus on overarching issues of importance to whites and blacks. He has failed to address the critical challenges. He has not used his bully pulpit to emphasize the importance of racial unity and the common interest of poor whites and blacks who need training, job opportunities, and the possibility of realizing the American Dream.
He hasn't done enough to address youth unemployment—which in the white community is 23.2% and in the black community is 39.9%. Mr. Obama has also cynically divided the country on class lines. He has taken to playing the populist card time and time again. He bashes Wall Street and insurance companies whenever convenient to advance his programs, yet he has been eager to accept campaign contributions and negotiate with these very same banks and corporations behind closed doors in order to advance his political agenda.
Finally, President Obama also exacerbated partisan division, and he has made it clear that he intends to demonize the Republicans and former President George W. Bush in the fall campaign. In April, the Democratic National Committee released a video in which the president directly addressed his divide-and-conquer campaign strategy, with an appeal to: "young people, African-Americans, Latinos, and women who powered our victory in 2008 [to] stand together once again."
President Obama's divisive approach to governance has weakened us as a people and paralyzed our political culture. We are stronger when we debate issues and purpose, and we are all weaker when we divide by race and class. We will pay a price for this type of politics.
Mr. Caddell served as a pollster for President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Schoen, who served as a pollster for President Bill Clinton, is the author of "The Political Fix" (Henry Holt, 2010).