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How We Became 'The Divided States of America'

Behind PBS FRONTLINE's investigation of the Obama years

By Richard Eisenberg

If you watch PBS’s FRONTLINE documentary on the Obama years — The Divided States of America — Tuesday, Jan. 17 and Wednesday, Jan. 18 (9 p.m. ET), you may feel like you’re watching a tempting ice cream sundae sadly melt into a bowl of soup.

Divided States of America
Credit: Courtesy of Pete Souza - White House via CNP / Corbis

The program begins in 2008 with an idealistic, young, “hope and change” president. It finishes eight years later, as Divided States says, “with a country more divided and angrier on both sides of the divide” and a president governing by executive order, unable to corral the Republican-controlled Congress.

As a recent Pew Research Center article noted, “partisan divisions in assessments of presidential performance are wider now than at any point going back more than six decades.” Today, Pew president Michael Dimock says, “more issues cleave along partisan lines than at any point since surveys began to track public opinion.”

The Hopey, Changey Stuff

How did this happen?

When the 44 president was first elected, says Michael Kirk, the documentary’s director, writer and producer, “Obama had the bull by the horns. He had it all; a nation of white and black people in his thrall.” Two years later, when Part 1 of the two-part series ends, the Republicans had taken over the House of Representatives.

“Obama,” Kirk says, “had a big, wonderful warm idea of transformation and unification, but it wasn’t realistic, with the collapse of the economy. And hanging big, social change, legacy issues on a presidency without a single Republican vote [as was the case with the Affordable Care Act] was going to be problematic.”

True enough. But there were other reasons, too, as the smart reporting for Divided States demonstrates.

Connecting the Dots of the Obama Years

Kirk’s specialty (as you may have seen if you watched his PBS FRONTLINE election documentary, The Choice) is connecting the dots. Here, roughly 70 Washington insiders do just that. Often, it seems like they’ve been waiting years for someone to let them spill all in front of a camera.

“When we sat down with former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and had him go back over the crucial decisions after the meltdown, you could sense in him a kind of relief of getting a chance to say it all out loud,” says Kirk.

Others interviewed had a very different take. “There were a lot of people who felt something unbelievably significant happened, as surely as if they had been witnesses to a slow-motion accident,” says Kirk.

Among those interviewed: Obama administration insiders like Senior Advisors to the President then (David Axelrod) and now (Valerie Jarrett); former Republican Congressional firebrand Eric Cantor; Republican pollster Frank Luntz and journalists Dan Balz, Peter Baker and David Maraniss.

Scenes From 'Divided States of America'

Often, they offer juicy, fly-on-the-wall recollections of what went down behind the scenes. For instance, Luntz describes a dinner he organized at a downtown Washington steakhouse on the night of Obama’s first inauguration.

Divided States’ stentorian narrator sets up the evening this way: “That night, as the press celebrated, he [Obama] had no idea that across town, new battle lines were being drawn by a group of Republicans quietly gathered to develop plans for taking on the new president. In attendance: Newt Gingrich and GOP leaders such as Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy.

“They wondered if they were in the permanent minority,” Luntz says. But after a spirited three-hour debate that ended with the group deciding it would block the president and fight his agenda, a political journalist tells PBS FRONTLINE, they left “practically exuberant.”


How the U.S. and Washington Grew Divided

Aside from a new Republican strategy, Divided States argues that the increasing polarization in Washington and in America was due to: Obama’s disinterest in schmoozing and dealmaking (“he’s not an arm-twister,” says an aide); a few blown administration opportunities (like not scolding the bank bailout CEOs called to the White House); Obama gaffes that were beauts (inviting Paul Ryan to the president’s speech lambasting the Republicans; riling John Boehner; mocking Trump when he was in the White House Correspondents Dinner audience); the growing power of right-wing talk radio (the documentary is peppered with salty soundbites from the broadcasters); lousy PR promoting his policies (as Obama noted on his upcoming 60 Minutes interview) and, perhaps above all, the president missing key signs of anger and populism bubbling up across the nation.

“You cannot be laconic to an electorate that is mad as hell,” says Luntz. And, Luntz adds, Trump’s “willingness to fight political correctness and not back down told them that he was the only candidate who would really blow things up in Washington.”

The Polarization of Boomers

I asked Kirk — who’s in his late 60s — how Next Avenue’s audience of Americans in their 50s and 60s fit into the “divided states” theme.

“Those people lost retirement accounts and health care benefits in the 2008 collapse — they lost their dream of the quote-unquote ‘Golden Years,’” says Kirk. “They were hoping for benefits from a lifetime of hard work. When the American Dream didn’t exactly pan out, a number of those people went to the Town Hall meetings. They lost faith in the government understanding what kind of trouble they were in. They were part of the revolution that yielded the Tea Party.”

Other boomers, Kirk says, are “highly educated elites” and proud children of the ‘60s who thought Obama’s election “signaled that we were entering a post-racial, more enlightened society.” But, Kirk adds, “they were sorry to see what happened and the failure of the idealism of a ‘transformative presidency.’ It became the Silent Majority and the Peace Movement, and this time, the Silent Majority won.”

Next Up: Donald Trump

Divided States airs shortly before Obama leaves the White House and Donald Trump moves in. Four days after the inauguration, on Tuesday, Jan. 24, Kirk will release his next PBS FRONTLINE documentary, Trump’s Road to the White House. For that one, his team interviewed Trump insiders including former Campaign Manager Cory Lewandowski, Counselor to the President and former Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway and White House Communications Director Sean Spicer.

“It’s a fast-paced, one-hour program that answers the question: How did he get there?” says Kirk.

I’m eager to watch and learn the answer.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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