Still, electoral racism cannot be reduced solely to its most egregious, explicit form. It has proved more enduring and baffling than these results can capture. The 2012 election may be a test of another form of electoral racism: the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts. 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.
The relevant comparison here is with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Today many progressives complain that Obama’s healthcare reform was inadequate because it did not include a public option; but Clinton failed to pass any kind of meaningful healthcare reform whatsoever. Others argue that Obama has been slow to push for equal rights for gay Americans; but it was Clinton who established the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy Obama helped repeal. Still others are angry about appalling unemployment rates for black Americans; but while overall unemployment was lower under Clinton, black unemployment was double that of whites during his term, as it is now. And, of course, Clinton supported and signed welfare “reform,” cutting off America’s neediest despite the nation’s economic growth.
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In 1996 President Clinton was re-elected with a coalition more robust and a general election result more favorable than his first win. His vote share among women increased from 46 to 53 percent, among blacks from 83 to 84 percent, among independents from 38 to 42 percent, and among whites from 39 to 43 percent.
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.
There’s a lot going on in her column–go read the whole thing. I agree with her suggestion that a lot of white liberals were completely turned on by the (delusional) fantasy that the election of Barack Obama as President would expiate centuries of violent and persistent racism. That fantasy was in my view a terrific example of racialist thinking among the flatteringly self-styled “reality based” community. But it strikes me as circular reasoning to suggest that giving up this racialist thinking and coming to a different conclusion than Harris-Perry about the President’s achievements or failures is itself “a more subtle form of racism.”
Secondly, Harris-Perry’s history of the Clinton administration is damned unfair and misleading on the question of the Big Dog and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Why does no one seem to remember that DADT was a compromised forced on President Clinton after he tried to integrate the military in 1993, but was rebuffed and humiliated by fellow Democrats like Sam Nunn, not to mention the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell? (Powell’s history of antigay activism was forgiven awfully fast, wasn’t it?) Yet here we have Harris-Perry telling the world that DADT was a prejudicial scheme dreamed up by “the Clenis.” Now, we can certainly argue about whether or not it was a useful expenditure of his political capital to push for military desegregation immediately upon his inauguration in 1993, but that’s what in fact he tried to do. Is there really any question about the amount of political courage it took to attempt desegregation in 1993 versus 2011, now that the majority of Americans as well as the majority in military service supported the repeal of DADT, and now that it’s been years since some U.S. states began marrying gay couples?
Is it “a subtle form of racism” for me to ask these questions?
Presidents are responsible for their own successes and failures. (Put another way, while presidents are of course not all-powerful, no one has as much power as a president himself to shape his electoral destiny and presidential legacy.) If liberal support for Obama has waned–and by all accounts it has–then it seems more reasonable to ask what Obama might do to win liberals back, if in fact this is something he’d like to do, rather than pre-blaming racism for the possibility that Obama won’t be re-elected in 2012. Don’t get me wrong–racism is still an enormous problem in this country. Each new generation of Americans manages to keep racism alive in terribly inventive ways. I just don’t think that the President of the United States can be convincingly portrayed as racism’s most concerning victim.
If Obama doesn’t win re-election, the reasons will be many, varied, and hotly debated by contemporaries and historians for decades to come. Racism will likely be part of the reason that individual voters might not support him when they supported Clinton in 1996–but it seems that there are lots of more significant reasons for Obama’s potential troubles next year, such as 1) Bill Clinton is a better politician who knew how to connect to people emotionally and with convincing warmth and sympathy, and he gave great speeches, 2) Clinton had a much more beatable, clownish, Republican nemesis in the form of Newt Gingrich, 3) Gingrich compromised and otherwise worked with Clinton in ways that the Republicans won’t work with Obama, 4) Bob Dole was a humorless stiff on the campaign trail, 5) Clinton was always a centrist, so liberals never believed he was one of them anyway, 6) Clinton had been the Governor of Arkansas for 10 years before becoming president, whereas the presidency is the first executive office Obama has held, 7) Obama’s hold on his own party has been shakier from the start–more Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton than for Obama in the primaries, and Obama has had notably poor relations with Democrats in Congress, even for a Democratic president.
Above all, we have 8) The economy was booming and gas cost less than a dollar per gallon in the mid- to late 1990s. And so, once again, we can debate his relative skills and political merit, but we must acknowledge that Bill Clinton is just about the damned luckiest man in the history of American politics. There are a lot more one-term presidents than two-term presidents in American history, after all.