By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Blacks’ support is so rock-solid that they overwhelmingly give Obama an A for his handling of the economy. This despite near-record poverty numbers, sky-high foreclosure and unemployment rates, and the virtual freezing out of blacks from many of the major business and construction projects bankrolled by Obama’s stimulus program. In an almost surreal reversal of how blacks—who are suffering more during this recession—see the situation, a majority of whites give Obama a failing grade for his handling of the economy and express far more pessimism about the economic future than African Americans do. Even more troubling, if Obama’s overwhelming support among blacks was taken out of the political equation, his overall approval rating—hovering around 50 percent—would plummet.
The indifference, ambiguity and outright hostility being expressed by many whites toward the Obama administration is not exclusive to Republicans or independents. White Democrats express antipathy as well. This was evident in the Democratic primaries. Hillary Clinton consistently (and, in some states, handily) beat Obama among white Democrats. During the general election, Obama prevailed in the must-win swing states largely because of the near–holy-crusade zeal of black voters. Despite the feel-good mood of the country in the weeks immediately after the election and Americans’ pride in making a black man the most powerful person in the world, the racial split did not evaporate with Obama's win.
Congressional Democrats in conservative-leaning districts get elected largely thanks to white votes, and they have been the least enthusiastic about Obama's policies. Meanwhile, the GOP, Tea Party leaders, and pack of rabid anti-Obama talk show jocks, bloggers and web sites have masterfully sold the idea that Obama is shoving the country down the path to socialism. The conservative attack pack harangues the federal government for giving the company store away to the poor—i.e., blacks and Hispanics. To many, the familiar equation is this: government programs equal handouts to undeserving blacks and poor people, which in turn equals money snatched from the pockets of hard-working whites.
That the conservative hordes play the race card comes as no surprise. It's a recycle of the angry white male narrative that dates to at least the 1960s. Richard Nixon stoked the fury of blue-collar, white ethnic, rural voters with attacks against Democrats for coddling criminals and welfare cheats, for fostering a culture of anything-goes permissiveness, and —with their big government/Great Society programs, for pandering to the poor. The crude, thinly disguised code words and racial cues worked. Nixon eked out a narrow victory over Democratic presidential opponent Hubert Humphrey.
That line of attack became a staple in the GOP playbook for the next four decades. With tweaks and refinements, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Jr. used the same arguments to ease their path to the White House. In the mid-1990s, Newt Gingrich and ultraconservatives recycled the strategy to seize Congress and pound out an agenda that made big government, tax-and-spend Democrats, and soft-on-crime liberals the fall guys for everything wrong with America. It touched the familiar nerve with many whites, and especially white males.
The 2008 presidential election was a near textbook example of how you can win an election and still lose a key voting bloc—in this case, whites. The GOP had a failed, flawed George W. Bush presidency to answer for. It was plagued by corruption and sex scandals. It was widely blamed for crashing the economy. It had an aged, politically disheveled presidential candidate and a laughingstock vice presidential candidate. It lugged the baggage of two unpopular wars. Yet its presidential standard bearer, John McCain, still got nearly 60 percent of the overall white vote.
The hard reality, then, is that a majority of white voters—out of fear, ignorance, and flat-out racial bias—have never accepted the Obama presidency. African-American voters sense that hostility and have once again rallied to his side. In the CBS poll, a decisive majority of blacks say that the media has been harder on Obama than on any other president. Don’t expect that belief—and the racial gulf that underlies it—to change.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk show on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.