Recent developments, however, make a better case that much of the remaining support for the administration’s faltering leadership actually stems from racial factors.
Even before the release of devastating unemployment numbers for June, leading polls showed big majorities convinced that America is headed in the wrong direction. A Zogby Interactive Poll (July 1-5) indicated that only 23 percent of likely voters believe we’re going the right way, while Rasmussen (June 26-July 2) pegged that number as a mere 26 percent. The two surveys reported nearly identical numbers (67 percent and 68 percent, respectively) who say America is moving the wrong way.
Only one significant segment of the population expresses optimism about the nation’s current course and feels undiminished confidence in the president’s leadership: Rasmussen reported a startling 58 percent of black voters who think America is moving in the right direction. This compares with 24 precent of Hispanics and just 20 percent of whites who agree that the republic’s on the proper course.
In the language of public opinion surveys, this means that African-Americans represent an “outlier”—far removed from the national mainstream when it comes to their judgment on the state of the nation and the president’s leadership.
Does this rosy view reflect the reality of measurably improved circumstances for the black community since Barack Obama moved into the White House?
In fact, no significant statistics point to an improvement in African-American life since January 2009, nor is there the slightest evidence that the Obama administration has pursued policies showing favoritism, or even special consideration, for black people.
Consider the newly released unemployment numbers: black joblessness stood at levels recalling the darkest days of the Great Depression: 16.2 percent, exactly twice the white rate of 8.1 percent. Moreover, the crisis of African-American unemployment became far more acute under Obama’s watch, rising dramatically from 13.4 percent at the time of his inauguration.
In other words, far from faring better than the rest of the country, the black community actually fared much worse.
Clearly, the African-American conviction that the United States has been progressing down the road toward prosperity and justice owes more to personal admiration for Obama and pride in his achievement as the first non-white president, than to any real-world experience of improved conditions.
In a sense, all segments of the public experience some of the same cognitive dissonance when it comes to their reactions to the president. Zogby (who regularly polls for Democrats, by the way) published numbers showing only 23 percent agree that we’re “headed in the right direction” while nearly twice as many “approve of Obama’s job performance.”
This means that a significant portion of the public (as many as one-quarter of likely voters!) agrees that the nation is going to hell, but somehow applauds the president’s record of leading us there.
This anomaly exposes the biggest challenge for Republican candidates in 2012 and indicates an obvious counter-strategy for Democrats.
The GOP needs to pose the question ceaselessly: if the nation’s headed the wrong way (as Americans believe by margins of 3 to 1), doesn’t that mean we need a change of leadership at the top?
The current high-profile negotiations on the debt ceiling will make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for the president to dodge responsibility for crucial economic policies that he will, for better or worse, endorse. If there’s no deal, he’ll certainly share the blame and if there is some grand compromise (as the whole world expects) it will go down in history as Barack Obama’s achievement (or blunder), rather than the big budget reform of John Boehner.
If the agreement succeeds in restoring confidence and growth, and more Americans embrace the optimism of the black community, then Obama will decisively win reelection. If, on the other hand, the economic picture continues to look sour and stalled, Republicans need to reach out to those in every ethnic and socio-economic community who believe the nation’s going the wrong way and to persuade them to choose a different direction.
To place the situation in the simplest political terms, the GOP need not convince a majority of black people that the country’s headed down the road to ruin. Right now, a significant minority (some 40 percent) of African-American voters already agrees with that proposition. If Republicans could manage to win just half of these skeptics, that would mean an increase in the black GOP vote to 20 percent—more than four times the proportion won by John McCain, bringing almost 2 million new votes into the GOP column. Winning half the Hispanic voters who think the nation is headed the wrong way would also bring a significant increase from McCain’s anemic 31 percent.
Among self-described white voters (still expected to amount to more than 70 percent of 2012 voters), McCain won last time by a decisive 12 percent, and there is scant evidence that Obama can improve his showing. He must fight to prevent an even more decisive defeat and to avoid slipping below 40 percent of white support—a figure that would likely doom his reelection bid even if he holds his huge margins in minority communities.
For Obama and his allies, the best and perhaps only strategy involves convincing the public that even though we remain far from “happy-days-are-here-again” celebrations, the gloomiest days of economic suffering are over and we’ve begun to claw our way back to better times. If this seems implausible, then the Democrats will make a concerted attempt to blame someone else for the feeble and feckless nonrecovery, fingering Boehner, or Wall Street manipulators, or the greedy rich in general, or the lingering influence of the archvillain George W. Bush.
Could that blame-some-other-guy strategy succeed at a time of genuine economic distress? Very possibly, given the tendency in the black community (and, in fact, the rest of the country) to approve of Obama even while decrying the impact of his policies.
When so many Americans dread the nation’s direction but refuse to hold the president responsible (despite his command of overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress for his first two years), then nonrational factors are clearly helping shape the contradiction.
At the moment, with rising unemployment and dire concerns about dangerous levels of debt, racial resentment plays little obvious role in undermining the president’s standing. Racial solidarity and sympathy, on the other hand, play an unmistakable part in protecting and sustaining a highly personalized popularity that his record indicates he doesn’t deserve.