Liberal racism: a possible explanation for an Obama loss in 2012?

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.

.       .       .       .       .       .      .       .       .      

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.

28 thoughts on “Liberal racism: a possible explanation for an Obama loss in 2012?

  1. Well, I voted for Clinton the first time under pressure and, irritated because he was even worse IRL than I had expected (and my expectations had not been high) I didn’t vote for him again.

    Didn’t vote for Carter the first time (first time I had a chance to vote for President) because he was so conservative. So, it’s generally hard to get me to vote for a Democrat anyway, and they have a history of screwing up when I do vote for them. Carter did much better than I expected so maybe if I don’t vote for Obama he’ll have a better second term?


  2. I really appreciated the Daily Show segment with Larry Wilmore about Barack Obama not being a Magic Negro. Starts at 2:32. The idea of the Magic Negro really annoys me in films as well– we had to watch Grand Canyon in high school and it bugged the crap out of me.

    While it may not be *the* reason Obama doesn’t get re-elected (and given the current field of Republicans, I pray daily that he does get re-elected), I do not think it should be discounted all together. Hollywood has told us that the middle-aged black guy is supposed to work miracles and save us all in under 120 minutes. (Not to be confused with the young black guy who is always the first to die in horrific yet mildly amusing circumstances, unless it’s Will Smith.) It’s a bit of a let-down that he’s only stemmed the free-fall and made things a little better (and you know, the Osama thing, the pirate thing etc.).


  3. I’m not a huge Clinton fan. I never mistook him for a liberal. I was mildly peeved by NAFTA, but not surprised. For the first time I had the inkling of an idea that the Democrats actually only governed for the benefit of the wealthiest 20%. For the last two years, I am dead certain that this is the case, and I won’t be voting for anyone in 2012.

    I might be racist. That might be the source of my unreasonable expectation that Barack Hoover Obama might follow through on some of his campaign promises. For example, I didn’t expect that we’d get a single payer health care system, but I understood that as of November 2008 we had a president elect who would make sure that some sort of public health insurance option was going to be on the table. I sorted of expected that it would be part of the debate, and that as one element of many proposed reforms the president might push for it. And yet, when he unveiled his non-plan, and fobbed it off on congress, the public option was nowhere to be found. When asked about the public option by reporters and supporters all Obama could muster was a blank stare, as if it were the first time he had ever heard of such a thing. I am resentful by the way he handled the health care debate, ergo I am racist.

    I have similar problems with his relationship to gitmo, the burgeoning security state, the two wars he inherited, plus the extra one he started. Nicoleandmaggie are right, he stopped the free fall, but we are still going to hell in a hand-basket, and there is not a damn thing anyone can do to stop it.

    In 2012 your can vote for the party that loots the country for the benefit of the top 2% or for the other party that loots the country for the benefit of the top 20%. Coke or Pepsi?


  4. Several point to start with, Clinton came out of the gates with 1) trying to integrate gays into the military, 2) institute health insurance for most and 3) raised the taxes on the rich. Obama was busy supporting his bosses on Wall Street.

    Clinton had a great relationship with black America. They showed their appreciation by naming him “the first black president.” Obama’s only strong connection is to rich white people.

    I didn’t vote for Obama in the primaries because I considered him unfit to be president. His color didn’t matter to me. In January 2008, before we could judge him, I did send him a generous donation. Obama turned out to be way worse than I expected.

    I am not sure that one can say that Clinton had easy nemesis (Newt). Clinton is one of the more intelligent president we had. One could argue that by closing the government he brought Newt to his knees.


  5. Newt was a tremendous gift to Clinton’s re-election. His cartoonishness and grandiosity made Clinton look quite statesmanlike by comparison. Clinton is a brilliant pol, but he didn’t need to do much except get out of Newt’s way. Boehner learned well from his rival/mentor, and has stayed out of it personality-wise.

    Good point about the OBRA of 1993. It lost Congress for the Dems, but it was better for the country and arguably set the stage for a good deal of the prosperity of the mid- and later 1990s. And prosperity is usually a winning hand in re-election!


  6. I was never thrilled with Clinton — reluctantly voting for him — but I acknowledge his prowess as a politician. I’ll vote for Obama in 2012, because the options thus far are far worse and I fear that some of them are even possibly electable. But I wish Obama the master speech-maker could help Obama the president learn how to negotiate, toughen up, and realize that you can’t pander to the right. You’ve got to go left and make compromises that are bad, but not as bad as they’ve been.


  7. Not a huge Bill Clinton fan here but man, I sure do agree with koshembos. Melissa Harris-Perry enjoys calling white progressives racist whenever their adoration for Obama dwindles below the level acceptable to her. Maybe she’s right but it’s an awfully predictable dogma. I’ll cheer ‘n’ revere the politicians I like, TYVM.


  8. My quick thoughts: I think where racism comes into this is the general inability for the nation to form a reasonable critique of Obama’s performance that doesn’t immediately lurch into birtherism and mischaracterizations that deem his not-so-liberal policies as socialism. In the face of that kind of hysterics on the right, those of us on the left who are slightly more in favor of Obama–like Rachel, I will not cut off my nose to spite my face; some of these Republicans are truly concerning (although I’d vote against Obama in a primary if there were a credible challenger)–find ourselves spending more time deflecting the racist conservative critiques that are the loudest than addressing the real problems he poses. That being said, he does pose some real problems and he’s faced some outrageous obstacles, so his potential loss can’t be boiled down to racism.

    (Two minor points in response to koshembos, who writes “Clinton had a great relationship with black America. They showed their appreciation by naming him “the first black president.” Obama’s only strong connection is to rich white people.” I’m not comfortable saying that calling Clinton the first black president is really a true measure of his relationship with black America, something that took a bit of a hit during the election (for things that came out of his mouth, not b/c of his wife’s campaign). Moreover, I don’t think Obama’s approval ratings among African Americans has dropped at nearly the same rate as it has among white Americans. And also: something about the phrase “His color didn’t matter to me,” emphasis on color, doesn’t sit right with me, and I suspect that this is part of what Harris-Perry is responding to. There is still a widespread use of language that isn’t racist, but that doesn’t sit well, that symbolizes how far we have to go in sorting out our race issues.)


  9. “The first Black president” is a phrase that came from Toni Morrison and compared the scrutiny of Clinton’s sex life to the hyper-sexualization of Black men. It never was about Bill Clinton’s relationship with the Black community.

    “African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and bodysearched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear ‘No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and–who knows?–maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.'”

    Also, Bill Clinton understood this: it’s the economy, stupid. Obama relies on this: the economy could be so much worse if not for me, stupid. That’s the bottom line.


  10. Analyzing why someone will not have been re-elected in more than a year if in fact it doesn’t happen is a fairly weird use of journalistic legerdemain; even as a pretext to get a word like “salvific” into the conversation. The bottom line on his declining support is that he’s given his most zealous supporters from 2008 almost nothing to not be disappointed about, and his in-house adversaries every reason to say “yep, told ya…” That and the newly-empowered craziness of the hater-demographic is a pretty heavy headwind to sail against. Only Obama and a few in his inner circle think he was elected to usher in an era of post-partisanship. We can like the party system or not, and abhor ideological polarization or not, as we prefer, but he was elected to defeat the adversary in November, 2008, and every day after that during his term. His choice to kidnap that mandate into one of his own is just that, his choice. People will render their judgement on it four years later, as the constitution invites them to do. I suspect a lot of people here will vote for him again–I will, for sure–because I’d vote against anybody running on the Republican banner including Abraham Lincoln. But I don’t think too many people will be fainting at rallies about being the change you always want to see or anything that beady-eyed and salivational.


  11. The baroque search for racism as an electioneering gambit seems all too similar to the ploy of using rape to sell movies. In both cases, there’s a real, huge problem that ruins people’s lives. It is not okay to use that suffering to make money or to guilt people into voting for you.

    Because I don’t see how else to interpret the whingeing about the racism of any criticism of Obama. He’s had negative racism to contend with in his life, I’m certain, but during the presidential campaign he was given a free pass. Either way, he’s not being judged on the content of his character. That’s the part that looks like racism to me.


  12. Great post, Historiann. Thanks for it. You tempt me to force my typist to start holding forth on politics again, which she has been resisting, on account of thinking about the whole damn mess makes her want to scream. Or start drinking very early in the morning. Both, actually.

    Sorry to see that Melissa Harris-Perry is indulging in this kind of piffle. I agree with everything Indyanna says here, including the part about not voting for Lincoln if he were around and running as a Republican today.


  13. I also thought that Indyanna was in rare form. This, especially: Only Obama and a few in his inner circle think he was elected to usher in an era of post-partisanship. We can like the party system or not, and abhor ideological polarization or not, as we prefer, but he was elected to defeat the adversary in November, 2008, and every day after that during his term. His choice to kidnap that mandate into one of his own is just that, his choice. People will render their judgement on it four years later, as the constitution invites them to do.

    Personally, I would love to vote for Abraham Lincoln. Now, THAT was a divisive president! No Post-Partisan Unity Schtick for him.

    thefrogprincess is right to note the obviously hysterical and over-the-top reactions to Obama’s policies (characterizing him as a “socialist,” the birther myth, etc. which are just laughable). But I’m reluctant to ascribe everything to race in this case. I’ll borrow a page out of Harris-Perry’s book to compare the Obama conspiracies to the Clinton conspiracies, and quite frankly I’m surprised at how tame and policy-based the right-wing conspiracies are about this president by comparison to Clinton. Have any of you ever heard of (or seen?) “The Clinton Chronicles?” Heard of “the Clinton Body Count?” Just google up that stuff to see what people were saying (and still are) about the last Dem president. Does anyone remember Congressman Dan Burton firing bullets into melons to investigate the “murder” of Vince Foster? The crazzy allegations of coke smuggling out of the Mena, AR airport?


  14. “In 2012 you can vote for the party that loots the country for the benefit of the top 2% or for the other party that loots the country for the benefit of the top 20%.”

    Can somebody remind me which is which?


  15. two thoughts:

    The election is going to be all about the economy. If unemployment gets below 8%, Obama has an excellent chance. The rest isn’t going to matter much, because it doesn’t matter to most people.

    We’ve reached a point where the Right is so wacky that thinking people are forced to vote for anyone who’s even just slightly to the left of them. Our choice is between the guy who wants to cut funding for the fire department, or the guy who wants to preemptively burn everyone’s house down. Obama has taken advantage of this situation, but he didn’t create it.


  16. PS: WaPo offers consolation to teeth-gnashing Obamaniacs (and the strongest argument for the president’s reelection) this morning: A glowing report on Elena Kagan’s first term on the Supreme Court. Shorter version: She is as liberal as we hoped she would be and she ain’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with Roberts, Scalia, and the Court’s other dudebros. Also, when Roberts called to congratulate her on her confirmation and said he looked forward to working with her for the next 25 years, her response was, “Only 25?” Long live Justice Kagan! The story is here:


  17. Thanks, Roxie, but I must confess: I’m immune to cries of Roe! Roe! Roe! ZOMG the SCOTUS!!!

    Maybe it’s because I’ve reached the Age of Mammography, so contraception and abortion politics just aren’t so immediately relevant to my life. Maybe I’m just a selfish bourgeois who knows she’s got the coin and the connections to help my younger family members get abortions if they want them. But, I wonder what all of my loyal voting for Dems has gotten me over the past 25 years, 1986-2011? It certainly hasn’t been a strengthening of Roe! In fact, it seems like the Dems who are most eager to frighten women with further erosion of our rights if we don’t vote for them are the ones who eagerly trade them away at the first opportunity!

    And of course, the people on the SCOTUS who proved key to saving the core of Roe over the past two decades were Sandra Day O’Connor (appointed by Republican Ronald Reagan) and David Souter (appointed by Republican George H.W. Bush). So SCOTUSmongering doesn’t scare me any more.


  18. Historiann, I think you’re right not to blame racism for all the hysterics (although for me, birtherism comes down solely to race). After all, we haven’t had any Wacos or Ruby Ridges…yet. I remember listening to an NPR interview a year or so ago in which the guest said that Republican presidents are able to keep a lid on the spread of militia groups etc, and that when Democrats ride into the White House, there’s nothing left to keep them in check. So part of this is just the fact that Obama’s a Democrat; part of it is that the economy’s horrendous; but part of it is race.


  19. Sorry…I meant to also say that I don’t think you can blame “liberal racism” for an Obama loss. I’ll be voting for him unless somebody else better comes along, but this is not a situation in which he deserves to win, but won’t b/c he’s black.


  20. thefrogprincess: yes to birtherism being largely about race. The birthers are just obsessed with Kenya, and sadly, most Republican pols are unwilling to stand up and say, “horse$hit.”

    The flipside/Janus-face to birtherism is I think the Magic Negro magical thinking that many liberals, especially white Baby Boomer-aged liberals, engaged in. Both are cases in which the wishful thinking makes little sense if Obama weren’t African American.

    I guess my point here is that plenty of gimlet-eyed white liberals and leftists didn’t fall for the Magic Negro fantasy have plenty of reason to be disappointed by Obama, and that that disappointment isn’t driven by an unfair standard because of Obama’s race. It’s a disappointment driven by Obama’s choices and actions, as Indyanna states so eloquently above.


  21. Thank you so much for the reminder about the climate Clinton faced and the reason for DADT. I can’t bring myself to read the article already blaming “racism” for Obama’s potential loss in 2012. Harris-Perry can jolly well look in the mirror. Whatever the difference is between racist and racialist thinking, the Magic Negro mythos is what got Obama elected, so I have no problem with it being a factor in his not being re-elected, if that’s the case. (Nicoleandmaggie, “Magic Negro” movies also bug me!)


  22. Thanks–I hadn’t seen that. It’s good, and provides more context for the Clinton comparison and examples of white liberal disgust with him. However, she doesn’t challenge Harris-Perry’s egregiously bad history on DADT, which I find pretty strange. Overall though, her points that 1) comparison is difficult between Clinton and Obama, and 2) Obama has lost support from everyone, not just whites and not just liberals, are very solid.


  23. I think there’s room for more than one right answer. MHP is probably right about there being a racist element to heightened expectations, as difficult as it might be to tease apart from the other factors at play; liberals are also right to feel that we’ve been largely ignored since the last election and–surprise!–are now being conspicuously wooed, in word if not in deed.

    At any rate, I’ll be voting not so much for him as against the Republican candidate next year- I seethed at non-voter’s inability to see the two sides of that coin in 2010, and suspect that *that* will have as much to do with a potential loss as anything.


  24. Note that I didn’t say the SCOTUS argument was a GOOD argument for Obama’s reelection — Just the strongest one available. The post-menopausal dykes of Roxie’s World are also pretty immune to the Dems’ disingenuous playing of the womb card. Still, we love the idea of Scalia and Roberts having to contend with Kagan and Sotomayor for the next several decades.


  25. Pingback: Harris-Perry to Joan Walsh: we are so not friends! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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