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When South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson screamed “You lie!” at President Obama Wednesday night, he dragged the paranoia and anti-Obama contempt that marked so many August “town hells” into the chambers of Congress. Wilson’s shriek also served as an exclamation point on an undeniable trend: Obama steadily lost support among white voters during this long, hot summer of hate, with his white approval rating dropping by almost one-third, from 63 percent to 43 percent between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Of course Obama never had the support of whites like Joe Wilson, a solid son of the South who served as an aide to segregationist Strom Thurmond and who publicly doubted and derided Thurmond’s biracial daughter, Essie Mae, when she went public about her dad’s identity. Obama lost South Carolina to John McCain handily, just as he lost most of the rest of the region. No one expected anything different. Outside of the South, though, the 2008 election was remarkable for the minor role race seemed to play as the nation chose its first African-American president.
Despite attempts to find a “Bradley effect” in primary states Obama lost — there wasn’t one — and cries of racism against Hillary Clinton’s campaign (which look damn silly now that we’ve seen real anti-Obama racism), in the end Obama got elected with a larger share of the white vote than John Kerry pulled in 2004, 43 percent to Kerry’s 41 percent. And after his win, his white approval rating soared, to a high of 63 percent in Gallup’s weekly tracking polls on Inauguration Day.
But that approval has been in free fall since the end of May, winding up at 43 percent just three months later, at the end of August. The racially tinged debates over Obama’s appointing the first Latina to the Supreme Court and his politically unwise foray into the Henry Louis Gates flap, combined with organized GOP opposition, seem to have done what Obama’s political foes could never manage in 2008: They’ve blackened Obama, in both senses of the word — simultaneously diminishing his support and emphasizing his ethnicity. Simply by raising consciousness about the president’s race and associating him with radical identity politics, they’ve diminishing his standing among a large swath of the public. (Gabe Winant has more of the statistical detail here.)
I started thinking opponents were blackening Obama back in July, after the racial drama of the Sotomayor hearings, when poor oppressed Caucasians like Sens. Jeff Sessions, Tom Coburn and Lindsey Graham made it sound like it was open season on white guys. Then came the racial morality play of the Gates arrest — Did race or class matter most? Should Obama have stayed out of it? — which gave way to the screaming of the Birthers, the angry gun-toting town-hall haters, the shrieking of Palinites over “death panels.”
I wrote about the role race played in these ginned-up controversies at the time: Birthers and Deathers (who tended to be the same people) were focused on marginalizing Obama as scary, “the other.” Race was central to their fears, from the Birthers’ obsession with Obama’s literal origins as the product of miscegenation; to the Deathers and the Town Hellers’ insistence that healthcare reform was, in Glenn Beck’s idiotic formulation, Obama’s idea of “reparations” for slavery. The cries of “socialism” were just another way to mark him as “other,” scary and foreign. Watching scenes of shrieking, sobbing people pleading to “take our country back,” it was hard not to ask, From who? The president who got a larger share of the vote than Ronald Reagan in 1980 or George Bush in 2000? What exactly is it that makes this particular commander in chief an interloper?
Finally, when Republicans began objecting to Obama’s speaking to schoolkids last week, you couldn’t ignore the racism: Listening to some parents’ expressing actual fear of having Obama beamed into their kids’ classrooms, it was hard to imagine such hysteria being inspired by a white president. It would never happen.
But even I was surprised at the extent and the precise timing of the drop in Obama’s white support when I took the time to look closely at Gallup’s weekly tracking polls recently. Here’s what I saw: Between January and the end of May, Obama’s white support went up and down a point or two, but stayed close to the 60 percent mark. The week that ended May 10, Obama had a 60 percent approval rating. Then in late May it began to sink steadily. Of course, the end of May marked the first racially charged controversy of Obama’s presidency, the nomination of Sotomayor and the furor over her “wise Latina” remarks.
Obama’s white support trended slowly downward throughout the summer in the weekly Gallup poll, but took another relatively large (4 point) drop between July 19 and July 26, a fiery week that saw the arrest of Skip Gates, Obama’s comment that Cambridge police acted “stupidly” in that incident, followed by Obama’s “recalibration” of those words. I said at the time that Obama’s commenting on the Gates mess was a mistake, even if it was a completely understandable one. Replying reflexively, as a victim of racial profiling, Obama was sincere — but in that moment, there’s no denying, he got blacker to a segment of the white population.
That same crazy week also featured the rise of Birtherism as represented by a screaming woman interrupting moderate GOP Rep. Mike Castle’s town hall claiming Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. It was a harbinger: August brought a wave of frenzied anti-Obama organizing at raucous meetings — what a Republican fundraising group proudly labeled “town hells” — where Birthers and Deathers and gun-toting loons accused Obama of ignoring the Constitution, imposing socialism and generally destroying the country. Obama’s support among whites continued to drop, to a low of 43 percent at the end of the month.
A few cautionary words. The timeline is intriguing, but correlation isn’t cause, and we can’t prove these events directly led to the decline in Obama’s white support. Ever the optimist, I’d even argue that racism is probably not the main cause. For one thing, the surge in white approval around Inauguration Day was lovely, but predictably ephemeral; it reflected people’s pride in the country’s having elected a black president more than their belief in him. (His current 43 percent white approval rating could be cited as proof that Obama has simply come back down to earth after more than seven months in office, since that’s the exact share of white support he got on Election Day.)
And while I think race, and racism, have played a role in the angry yelling of the Birthers and Deathers, and in the despicable contempt Wilson showed the president in Congress last week, I think most of the president’s troubles with white voters have to do with political doubt his enemies have sown about his programs — after Obama, in my opinion, was too slow to push his own clear proposals, especially for healthcare.
There may still be some subliminal racial discomfort in that growing white voter doubt, because all of the extreme right-wing questions about Obama — Is he an outsider? Does he care about people like us? Is he competent to run the country? Can he be trusted? (“You lie!”) Is he dangerous (we can’t trust him with our children!)? — echo the most crippling stereotypes that afflict black men in America. (As I write I’m listening to a woman at the Washington tea party on Saturday screaming, “We will not let Obama ram socialism down our throats!” Where to start?) It’s a cruel irony that this conciliatory, courteous, accommodating black man still faces claims that he’s a scary menace to America.
But while we have to call out racism when we see it (I hope that doesn’t make me sound Snoop Doggesque), we have to remember that Obama’s problem with whites is shared by white Democrats generally. Glenn Greenwald and Bob Somerby are right to remind us that the organized right wing used many of the same shrill character-assassination techniques against Bill Clinton, tarring him as a drug dealer, a rapist and a murderer, charges that have yet to be hurled at Obama. Obama has two-bit crackpot ministers praying for his death, which is appalling, but Clinton had one of the nation’s most famous ministers, Jerry Falwell, peddling claims of drug crimes and worse about him.
I see one big difference, though, between Clinton’s plight and Obama’s: Anti-Clinton extremism never really touched off organized opposition to Clinton among American voters. Someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember, and can’t find evidence, that tens of thousands, or even hundreds, of opponents rallied against Clinton, toting, say, cigars or blue dresses to mock the Lewinsky mess, or placards labeling him a murderer or rapist. (In fact the president’s approval rating rose during and after the farce of impeachment.) This time the Republican attack is resonating with a small but extremely vocal and paranoid segment of its base, and I think racism has everything to do with that.
Still, I think the best thing Obama can do for his presidency and the nation is pursue his goals, and pursue them vigorously. (Let’s remember that Clinton compromised with the right, and they still impeached him.) There’s not a lot of information in the Gallup polls about which whites are abandoning Obama, but looking at a recent Pew poll, which tracked the decline in white support from April to August, Obama’s largest declines came among women (12 percent), whites making under $30,000 a year (down 15 percent), and Northeasterners (down 16 percent). Polls in crucial swing states like Ohio show that Obama is losing the support of the Rust Belt voters he only barely won in November (after losing them to Hillary Clinton in the primary).
I wasn’t a huge fan of the cries of racism that attempted to explain Clinton’s edge over Obama in those Rust Belt and Appalachian primaries. Sure, there was racism, but it was also true that Clinton’s fighting populist message seemed to resonate more than Obama’s cerebral appeals to change — and when Obama adopted more of Clinton’s fire, his standing with those voters improved. I’d like to see the old fighting Obama from the end of the 2008 campaign, and I wonder whether he’d have the same polling problems with white voters that this sometimes uncertain-seeming new president, who got hit with a couple of poorly timed racial flaps, has had this summer.
It’s worth noting that Obama’s standing with white voters jumped 2 points last week, after he began to fight back and define his healthcare plan. It jumped again, with all voters (I couldn’t find data for whites alone), after his feisty speech to Congress on Wednesday.
Rather than wring his hands over racism, Obama seems to be getting tough on his real opponents — the corporate interests who want to see him fail — telling CBS’s Steve Kroft Sunday night that he won’t sign a bad healthcare reform bill, because when it doesn’t keep costs down, he’ll be blamed for it. Maybe Obama has realized that genteel GOP “statesmen” like Sen. Chuck Grassley are bigger enemies to him than the small but vocal segment of frightened, uninformed voters whose racism is once again letting them be tricked into ignoring their own interests by leaders like Grassley.
Finally, Obama may never get a larger share of the white vote than he got last November (which was good enough, after all, for a comfortable win). But if he compromises with the Republicans who are out to get him, he risks losing the support of the multiracial base that put him in the White House. Sticking to his (metaphorical) guns is both good policy, and good politics. Besides, despite their stumbles, I still trust Obama and the folks around him to do the right thing. And that means making tough, progressive policy decisions that will make a lot of white Birthers, Deathers, Grassleys and Wilsons red in the face.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.