"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The Nation’s most-read article this week is by my friend Melissa Harris-Perry, “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.” Perry doesn’t mention any white liberals by name, nor cite polls showing a decline in support for President Obama among white liberals (as opposed to white voters generally, where his approval rating has dropped sharply). But her piece touched a nerve because of the widespread perception that white liberals are, in fact, abandoning the president.
I’m not sure how to argue with a perception, which is by definition subjective, but I’m going to try, because this is becoming a prevalent and divisive belief. When I say Melissa Harris-Perry is my friend, I don’t say that rhetorically, or ironically; we are professional friends, we have socialized together; she has included me on political round tables; I like and respect her enormously. That’s why I think it’s important to engage her argument, and I’ve invited her to reply.
I couldn’t find any polls measuring “white liberal” support for President Obama, but it’s safe to say many white liberals are disappointed in the president. I think Harris-Perry is wrong when she generalizes about two things: that white liberal disappointment is due to “the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts” (which she calls “a more insidious form of racism”), and that it’s likely to lead to white liberals “abandoning” Obama in 2012.
In the absence of poll data on white liberal attitudes toward the president, Harris-Perry compares Obama’s current approval-rating woes to the resounding reelection of President Bill Clinton in 1996. Despite Clinton’s failure to pass healthcare reform, a signature Obama achievement, as well as his not so liberal record on NAFTA, “don’t ask, don’t tell” and welfare reform, she says, white liberals stuck with Clinton, yet they are threatening to ditch Obama. She concludes: “If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.”
But her Clinton-Obama comparison, while provocative and sometimes interesting, has a lot of practical problems.
It’s sad, for many reasons, that we don’t have a more recent Democratic president whose support we can examine. But using Clinton means we’re reaching back 15 years to his reelection, and 20 years to his first campaign. White liberal leadership, and individual white liberals, have changed dramatically in that span of time. Speaking for the only white liberal whose views I can report unimpeachably, I think about American politics, and Democratic politics, differently than I did two decades ago. (Although I should point out here that I both supported and sharply criticized Clinton throughout his presidency. You can check my Salon archive.)
So it’s hard to usefully compare the attitudes of a hard-to-define demographic group — “white liberals” — across a span of 20 years, factor in the specific ups and downs of two presidencies, and come to any fair political conclusions. It’s especially hard given the enormous difference in the economy during their two presidencies. Clinton presided over one of the strongest economies in American history; Obama inherited the worst mess since the Great Depression. Clinton probably gets more credit than he deserves for the economy, while Obama gets too much blame. But it’s nearly impossible to compare voters’ opinions of the two presidents given that stark contrast. With a booming economy, Obama would be riding higher with all voters, of every race.
In the absence of reliable poll data about white liberal opinion on Obama and Clinton, we at least need some specific anecdotal evidence. I understand why Harris-Perry didn’t want to single out any particular individuals, but it’s hard to know this is happening, let alone debate why, unless we can identify representative white liberal constituencies and individuals, and compare their support of Clinton and Obama. At different times and on different issues, liberals and progressives, whites included, howled over Clinton’s decisions, from DADT to welfare reform to the reckless behavior that led to his (absolutely outrageous and politically motivated) impeachment.
If we take Congress, two white liberal lions of the Senate, Ted Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, crusaded against and voted against what was, for liberals, Clinton’s most disappointing policy, welfare reform. Most white liberals in Congress voted against it. (His white Health and Human Services deputy, Peter Edelman, left the administration over it, calling it “the worst thing” Clinton had ever done.) White liberal Sen. Byron Dorgan was one of the few Democrats with the integrity and foresight to stand up to Clinton and his economic team when they supported the repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall banking restrictions, which opened the door to Wall Street corruption that torched the economy in 2008.
In terms of media, today’s progressive media infrastructure didn’t exist during the Clinton presidency — there was no Rachel Maddow, unfortunately, and no Daily Kos; no “netroots” or blogosphere at all. Salon came to national prominence to defend the president from the GOP witch hunt, but our writers and editors divided over Clinton’s various achievements and disappointments. On MSNBC, liberals Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews helmed a lineup that was hugely critical of Clinton (today Matthews is one of Obama’s leading defenders, while Olbermann, once a passionate supporter, has left both MSNBC and the Obama camp). The New York Times editorial pages, helmed by white liberal Clinton critic Howell Raines and featuring (once-liberal) Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, savaged Clinton and Al Gore. White progressives at the Nation attacked Clinton harshly on NAFTA, welfare reform and his Wall Street-friendly economic policies, while defending him from impeachment, much like Salon.
Outside of Congress, many of the white progressives giving Obama the most trouble weren’t uncritical Clinton supporters, either. While we remember Moveon.org getting its start to back Clinton during impeachment, it’s worth recalling that it wanted Congress to censure Clinton for his misdeeds; its slogan was “censure, and move on.” Also, the progressive online group was tiny back then, with nothing like the reach it has now. Obama critic Michael Moore was also a Clinton critic, who famously supported Ralph Nader over Gore in 2000. Nader and Michael Lerner, two organizers of the recent letter calling for a primary challenge to Obama, both regularly attacked Clinton. Though Lerner is remembered for his supposed bonding with Hillary Clinton over his “politics of meaning,” after the 1994 midterm debacle, he blamed Clinton for his cautious centrism and insisted in Tikkun:
What a president can do, and what Clinton might still be able to do to save his presidency and the liberal and progressive forces in the next two years, is to articulate a vision, a worldview, an ethical perspective, and legitimate a new form of discourse. And he can convince the American public that his specific proposals follow from and embody that worldview, so that to the extent that they accept his worldview they will also become supporters of his program. For this he doesn’t need the approval of Congress. All he needs is courage.
I quote Lerner at length not because I think he’s that influential, but because, if you substitute Obama for Clinton in that passage, you’ve got the essence of most white progressives’ complaints today.
It’s also problematic to compare Clinton’s reelection numbers with Obama’s midterm approval ratings. What people tell pollsters in times of disappointment, and how they then vote, can be two very different things. Gallup tracking polls don’t break down “white liberal” approval ratings, so the closest proxy I could find for the two presidents was approval by Democrats. Gallup data shows that at the exact same point in their presidencies, 74 percent of Democrats approved of Clinton’s performance; 75 percent of Democrats approve of Obama’s. Given that black Democrats have been loyal supporters of both presidents, that might indicate their approval ratings among white Democrats aren’t far apart, but in the absence of hard data, I don’t want to go too far with interpretation.
Barring more major trouble with the economy or a big misstep by the president, I expect Obama’s support by all demographic groups to be higher at the ballot box than it is in opinion polls today. Elections concentrate the mind.
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The difference between Clinton’s booming economy and today’s broken one creates political problems for Obama in another way: He was largely elected due to Americans’ fears that we were headed into an abyss, and their faith that he would bring the economic change he promised. Like a pilot taking over with a plane in a nose dive, Obama kept the economy from crashing, but he hasn’t lifted it into smooth skies. Maybe it makes me an unrealistic and entitled white progressive — that’s pretty much what black author Ishmael Reed called Obama’s white critics — but I think it’s clear that even with a recalcitrant Congress, the president could have done more than he did to dismantle the rigged system that let Wall Street destroy the economy, as well as more to help its casualties.
You don’t have to believe every conversation reported in Ron Suskind’s “Confidence Men” — and I don’t — to see that at almost every juncture, the president and his economic team sided with Wall Street and the banks that caused the crash, rather than with the crash’s victims. Many politicians share the blame: Democrats and Republicans let the financial sector rig the rules to enrich itself and impoverish the rest of us for the last 30 years. They’ve gotten increasingly rich by lending us the cash we didn’t get in raises since wages stagnated in the 1970s, after the Democrats began running away from economic populism (but that’s another, longer story you can read about in my book next year). But given the political opening to challenge that system in 2009, Obama essentially left it intact.
As I wrote last week, Obama appointed the Clinton economic-team veterans most friendly to Wall Street — most notably, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers — while excluding and/or marginalizing the Clinton vets most critical, like Robert Reich, Laura Tyson and Gary Gensler. And whether it was the Volcker rule getting commercial banks out of speculative, proprietary trading, or efforts to sell shady derivatives on “exchanges” for the sake of transparency, or a contingency plan to force the toxic behemoth Citibank into bankruptcy, Obama let important reforms either die on the vine or be diluted into ineffectiveness. He had a rare window to change the system radically, and it’s now closed.
Meanwhile, over the last decade, progressives — of every race — have become far more sophisticated, and outraged, about the naked control Wall Street and corporate America exert over politicians, including Democratic politicians. Obama brought more progressives into the process in 2008 — Michael Moore and Barbara Ehrenreich moved from Nader in 2000 to Obama — and they brought with them their higher standards for progressive political change and their critique of corporate America’s control. I acknowledge that Moore’s recent comment, “I voted for the black guy and what I got was the white guy,” betrays some racial ickiness, but so did Cornel West’s insistence that Obama fears “free black men” because he’s half-white.
There is one point on which I agree with Harris-Perry, at least partly. She argues that much of white liberals’ disappointment with the president “can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation.” I think there’s some truth there; I’ve written it about myself, right after the election. I wrote that one reason I was skeptical of candidate Obama in 2008 (apart from the fact that, correctly, I considered him an economic centrist) is that I looked to him to be a transformative, Martin Luther King Jr. figure, rather than a politician, and that I was
“… scrutinizing his every move not only for political efficacy but for moral, political and racial justice. It was too big a burden to place on our first black presidential nominee, and now, on our first black president. I also came late to the realization that Obama represents an advance beyond King in terms of our foreordained roles for African-Americans. We want them perfect, we need them to be the country’s conscience, to make us better than we are. It’s been very hard to simply view a black politician as an American leader.”
I also thought that the white left, in particular, projected hugely when it anointed Obama the definitive progressive in the race. In Harris-Perry’s journalistic home base, the Nation, Tom Hayden’s infamous “All American progressives must support Barack Obama” manifesto claimed deliriously: “We believe that Barack Obama’s very biography reflects the positive potential of the globalization process … By its very existence, the Obama campaign will stimulate a vision of globalization from below.” I should note, however, that Hayden’s piece was co-written by two black Obama supporters, Danny Glover and Bill Fletcher, along with Barbara Ehrenreich, proof’s that the left’s capacity for self-delusion came in all colors.
And yet, the president bears some responsibility for expectations that he’d be “salvific.” His dreamy “We are the ones we are waiting for” campaign encouraged projection. On the night he clinched the nomination, he gave the famous speech where he promised that “if we are willing to work for it”…”we will be able to look back and tell our children this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.” As Ari Berman reported in “Herding Donkeys,” Obama assembled a lefty campaign team by promising he was building not just an election machine, but a movement. “Even if we don’t win,” Obama told one Howard Dean campaign veteran, “how we do it, by getting people involved and building a grassroots movement, will leave the political process and the party better for having done it that way.” Obama raised progressives’ expectations to get elected, and he’s living with the results.
As long as we’re looking at the president’s racial support, let’s look broadly. While white liberal support for Obama has almost certainly dropped, so has his support within every group. Why are Latinos abandoning Obama? Two thirds of Latinos voted for the president in 2008; the Gallup tracking poll showed Latino support dropping to 44% at the end of August, though it jumped up above 50 percent this week. Overall, the president is polling in the 40s among Latinos since the end of June. And while black support remains strong, it’s declined, too. Obama won 95 percent of black voters in 2008, and his approval rating hovered in the 90s for most of his first two years. This week, it’s at 82 percent, and it’s been steadily in the 80s since February. That’s still high, but it’s not the enthusiastic, near-unanimous support that elected him.
The president himself acknowledged the rising volume of African American discontent in his speech to the (increasingly critical) Congressional Black Caucus Saturday night. The economy in particular, he said, “gets folks discouraged. I know. I listen to some of y’all.” Then he delivered a scolding: “Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complainin’. Stop grumblin’. Stop cryin’. We are going to press on. We have work to do.”
We could probably find racial crosscurrents beneath every group’s disappointment with the president, even the CBC’s. The legacy of racism, and the historic developmental path of African-American leadership, factor into black politicians’ complex responses to the first black president. How could it not? But it’s easier, and in my opinion more productive, to identify the practical reasons for discontent among the president’s multiracial base – most of which, it must be said again, still supports Obama. The most frequently stated reason for liberal disappointment is his failure to push more aggressively for solutions to our economic disaster, and particularly for jobs. I would argue that had Obama delivered his September jobs speech, and his jobs legislation, two years ago, and fought for it passionately, his standing with all subgroups within his base would be higher.
Finally: Looking for racial motives to explain white liberal disappointment with Obama, in the face of so many economic reasons, seems unnecessarily divisive. It’s hard not to notice that despite our admirable 40-year crusade to purge racism, overt and unconscious, from Democratic politics, most Americans, of every race, have grown worse off – and meanwhile, the same proportion of African Americans live in poverty as when Dr. King tried to launch a Poor People’s Campaign. As progressives have focused on the real and corrosive legacy of racism against minorities, one American minority has done very well, and that’s the richest one percent, who now earn a quarter of the nation’s income, up from 8 percent under Jimmy Carter.
I’m not saying our crucial effort to fight racism led to that outcome; I’m just noticing that it didn’t prevent it. I’m certainly not saying progressives should give up attacking racism. But I believe we need to pay much more specific attention to the grinding disadvantages of class as well as race if we want to undo the economic disaster of the last 30 years. Those of us who believe in economic justice must work harder to define a new vision, and a new language, of inclusion and prosperity for everyone. Blaming racism for a diverse assortment of white liberals’ diverse complaints about the president won’t get us there.
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.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)