One of the most tenacious myths of the Obama presidency is that he has a problem with black voters. Before a single vote was cast in the 2008 primary, pundits focused on the fact that Hillary Clinton enjoyed the support of high-profile members of the black establishment and wondered whether Obama was “black enough” to attract African-Americans. But once these voters had an opportunity to cast their ballots, their support for Obama was indisputable.
This myth has continued to dog Obama’s presidency, as the mainstream media repeatedly report faulty polls showing a steep decline in his black support. But a sober assessment shows that Obama has enjoyed robust, unwavering and unprecedented approval ratings among African-Americans. This was evidenced most starkly by the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that measured black support for Mitt Romney at zero percent.
The question is not whether the president enjoys the backing of black voters—he does. The question is not whether this support matters—it does. Black voters in states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida are crucial to his re-election. The question is: What difference does it make to black voters if Obama is re-elected?
The impact of an Obama presidency on black Americans is better answered by partisanship than race. Since the 1960s, African-Americans have fared better under Democratic administrations than under Republican ones. Most of the value of an Obama second term over a Romney presidency is captured by this partisan difference. But race is not inconsequential. For African-Americans, having a black president matters in terms not fully captured by policy outcomes.
When Obama became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990, he was asked about the historic nature of his election. A young Obama replied, “Although…I think people can say my election symbolizes some progress…I think it’s real important to keep the focus on the broader world out there…. For a lot of kids, the doors that have been opened to me aren’t open to them.” The quote is more than twenty years old, but the sentiment is still relevant to his presidency today.
No matter what policies he pursues, the president’s racialized embodiment stands as a symbol of triumphant black achievement. By embodying the American state in blackness, President Obama stitches together the double consciousness identified by W.E.B. Du Bois: “two souls…two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” For many black observers, there is a certain wonder in the simple reality that President Obama has not been rent in two by the sheer force of embodying both blackness and Americanness.
But there is a danger inherent in Obama’s ability to stand in this unusual gap. Simply by being elected, Obama trumpets a postracial individualism that threatens to undermine the very structures of opportunity that made his accomplishments possible. He recognizes this danger. It is why, even in 1990, he redirected attention to the “broader world out there.” The only way to resist false racial triumphalism is with a consistent and clear examination of the structural inequities that continue to shape opportunities for the majority of African-Americans.