Join Date: Aug 2004
Local Time: 05:37 PM
A debate, of sorts, between Melissa Harris-Perry at The Nation
and Joan Walsh at Salon
over how to make sense of apparent differences between black and white liberals in level of discontent with Obama.
Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama - Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry
Are white liberals abandoning the president? I don't see evidence - Joan Walsh
The 2012 election may be a test of another form of electoral racism: the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts. If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.
The relevant comparison here is with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Today many progressives complain that Obama’s healthcare reform was inadequate because it did not include a public option; but Clinton failed to pass any kind of meaningful healthcare reform whatsoever. Others argue that Obama has been slow to push for equal rights for gay Americans; but it was Clinton who established the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy Obama helped repeal. Still others are angry about appalling unemployment rates for black Americans; but while overall unemployment was lower under Clinton, black unemployment was double that of whites during his term, as it is now. And, of course, Clinton supported and signed welfare “reform,” cutting off America’s neediest despite the nation’s economic growth. Today, America’s continuing entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan provoke anger, but while Clinton reduced defense spending, covert military operations were standard practice during his administration. In terms of criminal justice, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which decreased judicial disparities in punishment; by contrast, federal incarceration grew exponentially under Clinton. Many argue that Obama is an ineffective leader, but the legislative record for his first two years outpaces Clinton’s first two years. Both men came into power with a Democratically controlled Congress, but both saw a sharp decline in their ability to pass their own legislative agendas once GOP majorities took over one or both chambers.
These comparisons are neither an attack on the Clinton administration nor an apology for the Obama administration. They are comparisons of two centrist Democratic presidents who faced hostile Republican majorities in the second half of their first terms, forcing a number of political compromises. One president is white. The other is black.
In 1996 President Clinton was re-elected with a coalition more robust and a general election result more favorable than his first win. His vote share among women increased from 46% to 53%, among blacks from 83% to 84%, among independents from 38% to 42%, and among whites from 39% to 43%.
President Obama has experienced a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans—from 61% in 2009 to 33% now. I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent.
I couldn't find any polls measuring "white liberal" support for President Obama, but it's safe to say many white liberals are disappointed in the president. I think Harris-Perry is wrong when she generalizes about two things: that white liberal disappointment is due to "the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts" (which she calls "a more insidious form of racism"), and that it's likely to lead to white liberals "abandoning" Obama in 2012.
...[H]er Clinton-Obama comparison, while provocative and sometimes interesting, has a lot of practical problems. It's sad, for many reasons, that we don't have a more recent Democratic president whose support we can examine. But using Clinton means we're reaching back 15 years to his reelection, and 20 years to his first campaign...[I]t's hard to usefully compare the attitudes of a hard-to-define demographic group--"white liberals"--across a span of 20 years, factor in the specific ups and downs of two presidencies, and come to any fair political conclusions. It's especially hard given the enormous difference in the economy during their two presidencies. Clinton presided over one of the strongest economies in American history; Obama inherited the worst mess since the Great Depression. Clinton probably gets more credit than he deserves for the economy, while Obama gets too much blame. But it's nearly impossible to compare voters' opinions of the two presidents given that stark contrast. With a booming economy, Obama would be riding higher with all voters, of every race.
In the absence of reliable poll data about white liberal opinion on Obama and Clinton, we at least need some specific anecdotal evidence. I understand why Harris-Perry didn't want to single out any particular individuals, but it's hard to know this is happening, let alone debate why, unless we can identify representative white liberal constituencies and individuals, and compare their support of Clinton and Obama. At different times and on different issues, liberals and progressives, whites included, howled over Clinton's decisions, from DADT to welfare reform to the reckless behavior that led to his (absolutely outrageous and politically motivated) impeachment. If we take Congress, two white liberal lions of the Senate, Ted Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, crusaded against and voted against what was, for liberals, Clinton's most disappointing policy, welfare reform. Most white liberals in Congress voted against it. (His white Health and Human Services deputy, Peter Edelman, left the administration over it, calling it "the worst thing" Clinton had ever done.)...On MSNBC, liberals Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews helmed a lineup that was hugely critical of Clinton (today Matthews is one of Obama's leading defenders, while Olbermann, once a passionate supporter, has left both MSNBC and the Obama camp). The New York Times editorial pages, helmed by white liberal Clinton critic Howell Raines and featuring (once-liberal) Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, savaged Clinton and Al Gore. White progressives at The Nation attacked Clinton harshly on NAFTA, welfare reform and his Wall Street-friendly economic policies, while defending him from impeachment, much like Salon. ...Obama critic Michael Moore was also a Clinton critic, who famously supported Ralph Nader over Gore in 2000.
It's also problematic to compare Clinton's reelection numbers with Obama's midterm approval ratings. What people tell pollsters in times of disappointment, and how they then vote, can be two very different things...Barring more major trouble with the economy or a big misstep by the president, I expect Obama's support by all demographic groups to be higher at the ballot box than it is in opinion polls today.
...The difference between Clinton's booming economy and today's broken one creates political problems for Obama in another way: He was largely elected due to Americans' fears that we were headed into an abyss, and their faith that he would bring the economic change he promised. Like a pilot taking over with a plane in a nose dive, Obama kept the economy from crashing, but he hasn't lifted it into smooth skies. Maybe it makes me an unrealistic and entitled white progressive--that's pretty much what black author Ishmael Reed called Obama's white critics--but I think it's clear that even with a recalcitrant Congress, the president could have done more than he did to dismantle the rigged system that let Wall Street destroy the economy, as well as more to help its casualties. ...Many politicians share the blame: Democrats and Republicans let the financial sector rig the rules to enrich itself and impoverish the rest of us for the last 30 years. They've gotten increasingly rich by lending us the cash we didn't get in raises since wages stagnated in the 1970s, after the Democrats began running away from economic populism (but that's another, longer story you can read about in my book next year). But given the political opening to challenge that system in 2009, Obama essentially left it intact. As I wrote last week, Obama appointed the Clinton economic-team veterans most friendly to Wall Street--most notably, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers--while excluding and/or marginalizing the Clinton vets most critical, like Robert Reich, Laura Tyson and Gary Gensler. And whether it was the Volcker rule getting commercial banks out of speculative, proprietary trading, or efforts to sell shady derivatives on "exchanges" for the sake of transparency, or a contingency plan to force the toxic behemoth Citibank into bankruptcy, Obama let important reforms either die on the vine or be diluted into ineffectiveness. He had a rare window to change the system radically, and it's now closed. Meanwhile, over the last decade, progressives--of every race--have become far more sophisticated, and outraged, about the naked control Wall Street and corporate America exert over politicians, including Democratic politicians.
...I acknowledge that [Michael] Moore's recent comment, "I voted for the black guy and what I got was the white guy," betrays some racial ickiness, but so did Cornel West's insistence that Obama fears "free black men" because he's half-white.
There is one point on which I agree with Harris-Perry, at least partly. She argues that much of white liberals' disappointment with the president "can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation." I think there's some truth there; I've written it about myself, right after the election. I wrote that one reason I was skeptical of candidate Obama in 2008 (apart from the fact that, correctly, I considered him an economic centrist) is that I looked to him to be a transformative, Martin Luther King Jr. figure, rather than a politician, and that I was "scrutinizing his every move not only for political efficacy but for moral, political and racial justice. It was too big a burden to place on our first black presidential nominee, and now, on our first black president. I also came late to the realization that Obama represents an advance beyond King in terms of our foreordained roles for African-Americans. We want them perfect, we need them to be the country's conscience, to make us better than we are. It's been very hard to simply view a black politician as an American leader." ...And yet, the president bears some responsibility for expectations that he'd be "salvific." His dreamy "We are the ones we are waiting for" campaign encouraged projection.
...As long as we're looking at the president's racial support, let's look broadly. While white liberal support for Obama has almost certainly dropped, so has his support within every group. Why are Latinos abandoning Obama? Two-thirds of Latinos voted for the president in 2008; the Gallup tracking poll showed Latino support dropping to 44% at the end of August, though it jumped up above 50% this week...And while black support remains strong, it's declined, too. Obama won 95% of black voters in 2008, and his approval rating hovered in the 90s for most of his first two years. This week, it's at 82%, and it's been steadily in the 80s since February. That's still high, but it's not the enthusiastic, near-unanimous support that elected him. The president himself acknowledged the rising volume of African American discontent in his speech to the (increasingly critical) Congressional Black Caucus Saturday night.
...Finally: Looking for racial motives to explain white liberal disappointment with Obama, in the face of so many economic reasons, seems unnecessarily divisive. It's hard not to notice that despite our admirable 40-year crusade to purge racism, overt and unconscious, from Democratic politics, most Americans, of every race, have grown worse off–-and meanwhile, the same proportion of African Americans live in poverty as when Dr. King tried to launch a Poor People's Campaign. As progressives have focused on the real and corrosive legacy of racism against minorities, one American minority has done very well, and that's the richest 1%, who now earn a quarter of the nation's income, up from 8% of it under Jimmy Carter. ...I believe we need to pay much more specific attention to the grinding disadvantages of class as well as race if we want to undo the economic disaster of the last 30 years. Those of us who believe in economic justice must work harder to define a new vision, and a new language, of inclusion and prosperity for everyone. Blaming racism for a diverse assortment of white liberals' diverse complaints about the president won't get us there.
I almost cut everything preceding the bolded part out of Walsh's response, because while she does an excellent job laying out why liberals in general
might be dissatisfied with Obama's economic policy, none of that really addresses the specific question Harris-Perry is asking, save for the point that "white" voter support is not the same thing as "white liberal" voter support. What Harris-Perry identifies as the "ineffective leader" complaint and what Walsh identifies as the erosion of "salvific" "projections" may be, I think, the same thing. You could perhaps subdivide that into different kinds of "projections" (I rather doubt MLK is the right characterization for whatever totem Michael Moore had in mind), regardless, having seen several exchanges like the above play out between friends and students of mine, my sense is that this is the factor most likely to be left unsaid.