As the Obama campaign struggles against powerful riptides of economic bad news, some of the president’s most fervent apologists have returned to the old habit of blaming all his political troubles on racism.
State Sen. Louise Lucas, one of the leaders of the official “Obama Truth Team” in the crucial swing state of Virginia, told a local radio show that Mitt Romney and his supporters won’t accept anyone “other than a white man in the White House.” She declared that she couldn’t conceive of any other reason that her fellow citizens might disapprove of the incumbent president. “All of the folks who are saying, ‘We don’t like Barack Obama,’ they can’t tell you any reason that they don’t…I absolutely believe it’s all about race, and for the first time in my life I’ve been able to convince my children finally that racism is alive and well.”
On a similar note, Huffington Post editor Howard Fineman condemned the Romney campaign for exploiting racial animosity to try to undermine Obama. “He is playing to, and has from the beginning of the campaign, playing to the kind of nativist base of the Tea Party,” he told the MSNBC audience of The Chris Matthews Show. “And by nativist I mean people who are in essence afraid of the world.”
Together with the host, Fineman agreed with Democratic consultant Bob Shrum that the GOP couldn’t cope with America’s transformation into a diverse, multiethnic society. “The Republican Party has become the vessel of the resentful, of the fearful, of the people who are anxious,” Shrum helpfully explained, noting with undisguised contempt that “Mitt Romney kowtows to them.”
This grand theory about GOP racism conveniently ignores Romney’s well-publicized flirtation with potential vice presidential picks that hardly fit the stuffy, Anglo-Saxon mold, including the African-American superstar Condoleezza Rice, the Indian-American GOP governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, the Latino Sen. Marco Rubio, and the Latino Republican governors Susana Martinez and Brian Sandoval. Even if Romney avoids a possible groundbreaking choice and selects a more “conventional” Republican candidate, his high-profile promotion of his party’s rising non-white stars hardly shows a frightened candidate who is “kowtowing” to bigotry or narrow-mindedness.
Moreover, the frequently invoked claim that implacable racial animus motivates the growing opposition to Obama’s re-election offers no explanation for the president’s smashing victory four years ago, when he won the most decisive presidential victory in a quarter century, since George H.W. Bush in 1988. How is it that candidate Obama managed to overcome racism so handily in 2008, only to feel crippled by its renewed ravages in 2012? Did a big group of bigoted Americans only belatedly wake up the shocking discovery that the nice young man with the pretty wife and daughters who had recently moved into the White House was actually (shudder!) black?
Or do Democrats want us to believe that voters only temporarily overcame their biases in response to the euphoria of the hope-and-change campaign and then fell back into their nasty old prejudices at some point during his first term?
But this explanation suggests that disillusioned voters are responding to disappointing aspects of Obama’s performance as president, not to a visceral, negative reaction to the color of his skin—a conclusion further supported by his declining support across the board, in every ethnic category. Recent polling shows that the president has even lost a significant chunk of his near unanimous backing in the black community, going down from 95 percent, according to exit polls, to barely 80 percent, according to several recent surveys. This difference may not seem like much, but if held up would cost the president more than a million black votes in November. Moreover, his support also has sagged among Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, and all other non-white segments of the electorate. Do these declines reflect deep-seated racist hostility, or perceived incompetence at the highest level of government?
Those who suggest that Obama’s race remains a major handicap to his re-election love to cite exit polling from 2008 that showed the president sweeping every racial group in the nation except for whites, who represented 74 percent of all voters and gave John McCain a landslide margin of victory amounting to 12 percent. According to this argument, the stubborn refusal of the big majority of white voters to go along with citizens of color in backing a polished, accomplished, and manifestly gifted candidate like Barack Obama can’t possibly be explained except by reference to toxic white racism.
But how, then, could anyone explain the reception to John Kerry’s candidacy in 2004, when the Massachusetts patrician fared worse with white voters than did the black kid from Hawaii in his historic campaign four years later?
Kerry, indeed, experienced much the same pattern across ethnic lines as all Democrats do, with big majorities among communities of color—88 percent of blacks, 56 percent of Asians—and a pathetic showing among the white majority, losing that group by 17 points to George W. Bush, five points more than Obama’s margin of white rejection in 2008. Do liberal true believers suggest that racist voters harbored some secret fear that John Forbes Kerry was African-American?
The racism-explains-it-all theory ignores the true nature of Obama’s resounding victory in 2008, which suggests strongly that his racial identity worked to his advantage, not to his detriment. Among white voters, he performed at least as well as other recent Democratic candidates, even drawing four points more, 43 to 39 percent, than good ol’ boy Bill Clinton did his three-way race in 1992. But it was among blacks, Latinos, and Asians that Obama vastly outperformed his Democratic predecessors, besting their performance by about 10 points with each ethnic group and building enough of a margin to win the presidency. In other words, Obama’s status as a barrier-busting nominee and a racial outsider made him no less popular among whites and considerably more popular among everyone else.
That his formula for victory isn’t working as well this time reflects widespread frustration over the course of the country during the last four years, with big majorities in nearly every group except African-Americans agreeing that we’re headed in the wrong direction. In this situation, it’s impossible to imagine that if Obama had whiter skin that he’d boast higher poll numbers. The claim that he’s victimized by undercurrents of racial anxiety and resentment that blind the electorate to the true magnificence of his presidential achievements can’t plausibly shift blame for the nation’s woes from Obama to his purportedly prejudiced opponents. Race references have become far more common on the left than on the right and amount to one more desperate Democratic attempt to distract and deflect the growing consensus that we face dire circumstances and urgently need new leadership.