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For Obama Foes, It's the Economy, Not Race

5 years ago
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On September 18, 2008, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke met with the congressional leadership to warn them of the consequences of legislative inaction to ward off the financial collapse. According to James Stewart's riveting chronology of the economic meltdown in this week's New Yorker, Bernanke predicted direly, "You could see a 20 percent decline in the stock market, unemployment at 9-to-10 percent, the failure of GM certainly, and other large corporate failures. It would be very bad."
A year later – even though Congress eventually approved a $700 billion Wall Street bailout and the markets slowly stabilized – the economy is roughly in accord with Bernanke's worst-case scenario. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is down 10 percent – and that minus figure has only been reached after a dramatic up-from-the-abyss rally. Unemployment threatens to hit double-digit levels over the next few months. General Motors, with government assistance, has staggered in and out of bankruptcy. And, yes, it has been very bad.
That is the context for trying to sort through the current confusion about public attitudes toward Barack Obama.
Most recent polls show the president's job approval rating at a few percentage points over 50 percent. On a personal level, Obama scores even higher with 82 percent of the voters calling him a good communicator, 77 percent describing him as warm and friendly, and 70 judging him well organized. (These figures about Obama's attributes come from a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that will be released Thursday.) As Republican pollster John McLaughlin admits, "People give Obama the benefit of the doubt because they like him."
But the media narrative this week revolves around the intensity of the opposition to Obama as if the president were Louis XVI and the nation were poised to march on the Bastille.
The firestorm surrounding South Carolina's unrepentant presidential heckler Joe Wilson has all but erased the memory of another Joe Wilson -- the former diplomat turned Bush critic who is married to outed CIA operative Valerie Plame. An anti-Obama march on Washington last weekend triggered a tempest-in-a-tea-bag tussle over crowd estimates. Jimmy Carter fanned the flames when he said during an NBC interview, "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African-American."
And in a dramatic illustration of what the left calls the Obama Derangement Syndrome, a new statewide poll in New Jersey found that 14 percent of Republicans and 8 percent of all Garden State voters believe that (a drum roll, please, maestro) Obama is the Anti-Christ. Even scarier is that another 13 percent of New Jersey voters are undecided on this vexing issue of public policy that somehow was never mentioned during the 2008 presidential debates.
In truth, there is a case that Obama – despite the vehemence of some of his opponents – arouses less visceral hatred than his two predecessors in the Oval Office.
The ABC News/Washington Post poll is unique in regularly asking a national sample of voters not only about presidential job ratings but also whether they approve or disapprove "strongly." Gary Langer, the polling director at ABC News, points out in his blog, "After eight months in office, 31 percent of Americans in the latest ABC/Post poll strongly disapprove of Obama's performance as president. Bill Clinton reached the same level of strong disapproval in five months." As for George W. Bush, it took him until January 2004 to register a strong disapproval rating of 30 percent in the ABC/Post poll, but after that the animus of his opponents took on a savage fury. The low point came in a post-election poll last November in which 73 percent of the public gave Bush a thumbs-down rating and 58 percent of the total sample felt strongly about their negative verdict.
But who-is-hated-the-most comparisons among presidents can be deceptive. Elected in 1992 before most Americans even knew the Internet existed, Bill Clinton was a minority president (43 percent of the vote) who partly owed his tenure in the Oval Office to the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot. George W. Bush survived the long count in Florida – and only unequivocally won the 2000 election after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor. Yet, even though many Democrats considered him to be an illegitimate president, Bush only registered 22 percent strong disapproval in an ABC/Post poll conducted eight months after his inauguration.
Anti-Obama passions are undeniably present, although they may not be as meaningful as advertised. In part, they reflect the high-decibel partisanship of a political dialogue defined by cable television and angry Web sites. As Republican pollster David Winston puts it, "I think there are things going on that have nothing to do with Obama, like the change in the political discourse." Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, makes an analogous point: "We live in a polarized country and it's no surprise that Republicans react strongly to a Democratic president who's trying to do big, important things."
What seems implausible, though, is the Carter-ite conviction that a significant fraction of the animus directed at Obama is motivated by race. Strong disapproval of the president in the ABC/Post poll has almost doubled since February, even though Obama's unusual family history has not changed since then. Joseph Bafumi, a professor of government at Dartmouth, who has studied racial attitudes surrounding Obama, argues, "Racism does play a limited role, but it's declining over time because of generational replacement."
The best illustration of how America has changed since Carter battled the segregationists in Georgia was the 2008 election itself. Analyzing the exit poll data, pollster Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center, said in a speech, "Race was certainly a factor in the vote, but on balance more of a positive than a negative for Obama." Kohut noted that compared to John Kerry in 2004, Obama "made large gains among young whites, well-educated whites and affluent whites." The drop off for Obama among the 7 percent of the white voters who said that race was a factor in their decision was counter-balanced by a jump in black turnout.
But certainty is elusive when it comes to race, the issue that has divided America for almost four centuries. "In theory, you would need to run two elections – one with a white Obama and one with the real Obama," said Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA. But Vavreck, along with her co-author Simon Jackman from Stanford, has sifted through the data from a series of large-sample academic polls conducted during the 2008 election for the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project. In a paper that is still in draft stage, Vavreck and Jackman found that 8 percent of McCain voters cited Obama's race as a factor in their decision to vote Republican. That fits with the public exit poll data. But what is counterintuitive and fascinating is Vavreck and Jackman's related discovery: "Our estimate is that 20 percent of white voters supporting Obama were doing so in part because Obama was black."
All this brings us back to the simplest explanation for the roiling passions that animate Obama foes – the economy, stupid. This has been a wrenching year for most Americans and there is no easy outlet for their frustrations. "You have a population that is pretty frightened," said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. "You have a stimulus that hasn't yet trickled down to Joe Sixpack." Ben Bernanke said in a Tuesday speech that it was "very likely" the recession was over, but also cautioned "it's still going to feel like a very weak economy for some time." In other words, up is going to feel a lot like down.
The federal government's strategy since the crisis hit with a vengeance a year ago was to prop up Wall Street – or to face the abyss. As a result, the average voter is suffering and maybe even facing foreclosure, but the Masters of the Universe who brought on the worst financial crisis since the Depression are still ensconced in their Greenwich mansions and their Fifth Avenue duplexes. "They see Wall Street bounce back," said David Winston, "but they keep asking, 'When do we get our benefits?'"
Perhaps Obama could channel some of this legitimate voter rage if he were more of a natural populist instead of being a testament to the wonders of the American meritocracy. But Obama does not do public anger well – such emotional displays are at odds with his carefully restrained political persona.
None of this may prove fatal to Obama or the Democrats -- for we are still in the towel-snapping phase when the Republican opposition is more personified by cable TV fulminators and out-of-control South Carolina politicians than by serious political figures. In fact, given the shambles of the economy that he inherited, Obama's true accomplishment may be that he is still communicating with the two thirds of the voters who do not strongly disapprove of his performance as president.

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