Melissa Harris-Perry, a Princeton professor and MSNBC commentator, recently proposed a hypothesis to explain Obama's declining poll numbers. Even though the professor's explanation is familiar, it may come as a surprise:
President Obama has experienced a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans—from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent 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. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.She writes, "His re-election bid, however, may indicate that a more insidious form of racism has come to replace it." Harris-Perry claims Obama's poll numbers are falling on account of white racism. By way of evidence, the professor suggests Obama is doing no worse job than Bill Clinton. Needless to say, the evidence on this score is not at all convincing. More people are unemployed and more suffer civil rights abuses under Obama than Clinton. As a blogger wrote in response to the Harris-Perry article, "Saying that Barack Obama is 'just as competent' as Clinton is like saying that an ostrich can fly just as well as an eagle." The new Obama biography by Ron Suskind comes to the same conclusion in more words.
As for the explanation for Obama's declining poll numbers, I'm not impressed when someone hangs their credentials on an untested hypothesis. People should be less interested in Harris-Perry explanation's for the Obama poll numbers than the larger tragedy her whole argument overlooks.
President Obama hasn't done enough improve the economic situation for poor and middle class Americans generally, and the African American community in particular. The numbers tell us so. Blacks face astoundingly high unemployment, and the demographic was dealt a serious blow by a housing crisis for which there has been scant relief at the bottom.
The Obama administration has acted as if it can take black voters for granted. Of course, other groups in the Democratic Party "base" have likewise been ignored: unionized workers, environmentalists, civil libertarians, etc. To the extent it fills the hearts of many African Americans with pride to see a black man in the White House, Obama may enjoy considerable leeway with the demographic. That's simply human nature and the politics of identity. For example, to some extent JFK could take the Irish-Catholic vote for granted.
But just because a particular leader can take a particular demographic for granted doesn't make the practice acceptable. Absolutely, it should be condemned whenever the demographic in question faces greatly diminished prospects, as has been the case with blacks under President Obama.
Rather than making excuses, I think Harris-Perry would be doing many African Americans--along with the vast majority of Americans--a far greater service if she focused on holding the Obama administration accountable for its spectacular ideological capitulation to the right.
African-American support for the president appears to be slipping. WaPo reports:
New cracks have begun to show in President Obama’s support amongst African Americans, who have been his strongest supporters. Five months ago, 83 percent of African Americans held “strongly favorable” views of Obama, but in a new Washington Post-ABC news poll that number has dropped to 58 percent. That drop is similar to slipping support for Obama among all groups.Assuming the poll is correct, and blacks are losing confidence in Obama at the same rate as whites, this fact would seem to destroy Harris-Perry's hypothesis that white racism explains the drop in support for Obama among white voters. Support for Obama among blacks has long been higher. It seems Obama is increasingly perceived as a failed leader across all demographic groups.
In one act, Obama could yet prove himself the world-historical leader we need him to be. And he could fulfill his 2008 campaign promises of "hope and change." Obama need only withdraw from the 2012 presidential contest. That would restore our hope -- at least for a time.
Hope. Anybody remember what that felt like?