On Sunday I went to the Prudential Center in Newark to hear President Obama make the case for Governor Jon Corzine’s reelection here in New Jersey. Already a strong supporter of Governor Corzine I wasn’t going to be convinced. And I wasn’t particularly excited about standing in a long line, on a chilly afternoon to listen to two men I’ve heard speak dozens of times. But I was determined to go. One year ago I’d been in Newark to hear candidate Obama make his closing arguments, and I wanted to check out what an Obama rally looks like one year later.
Some elements of the atmosphere were familiar: insanely long lines, intense police presence, surprisingly jovial mood despite the chill. One thing was noticeably and distressingly different: the crowd waiting to see President Obama in Newark on Sunday was much less diverse than the crowd that greeted him in the waning days of the 2008 election. By my estimation the supporters in Newark yesterday were not exclusively, but certainly predominately, African American.
The event mirrors recent trends in the polls. Presidential job approval polls by Gallup have tracked two consistent trends in President Obama’s ratings: overall decline and a widening racial gap between black and white Americans.
As a public opinion researcher, I am not surprised by this racial gap. Political science has convincingly and repeatedly found a wide and persistent gulf between the political attitudes of white and black Americans.
For example, one of the most consistent finding of public opinion research is how African American partisanship differs from that of whites. African American allegiance to the Republican Party of Lincoln was solid for the decades between Emancipation and The New Deal, but by the 1940s black Americans had become overwhelmingly Democratic in affiliation. At the same time, white voters increasingly moved to the Republican column, particularly in the South.
African Americans are unique both in the direction of their affiliation and in the homogeneity of the attachment. But despite the strength of this attachment, black Democratic partisanship is quite different from that of white Democrats. There is marked racial division of opinion within the party ranks and leadership. The Congressional Black Caucus often finds itself at odds with party leadership, and among voters, black and white Democrats differ on issues of economic redistribution, domestic public policy, and even foreign policy.
This means that President Obama is not the first contemporary president to experience a noticeable racial approval gap. African American animosity toward Presidents Reagan and Bush, who were well liked by most whites, was a salient feature of the 1980s. African American attitudes toward Clinton were quite different. In 2000, black respondents reported average warmth toward Clinton of 79 points, a presidential score, that for the first time, outstripped black American ratings for Reverend Jesse Jackson. The approval ratings among African Americans for George W. Bush made history when they plummeted to single digits in some polls during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
This history suggests that black voter support of Obama is not driven solely by his identity as the first African American president, but instead is rooted in more persistent racial differences in American politics.
Therefore, while my academic-self is unsurprised by this racial gap, my citizen-self is distressed. One of the distinctive and exciting features of the Obama candidacy was the appeal of its multi-racial coalition. I appreciated the Obama yard signs in Hebrew and Arabic, the bumper sticker that read Older White Woman for Obama, the sustaining role of hip-hop music in the campaign, and watching Americans of all backgrounds chant Si Se Puede.
I have always been more impressed by the Obama coalition than by Obama himself. Perhaps this is because as a Hyde Park, Chicagoan I began following Obama’s career when he was a smart, but awkward, state senator who endured a tough congressional loss. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always secretly like Michelle better. Whatever his shortcomings, I was thrilled by Obama’s 2008 campaign because his candidacy became a space where a real, winning, multi-racial, electoral coalition emerged around progressive issues on the national stage. My greatest hope for this campaign-built-on-hope was for America’s racial possibilities if this diverse coalition could be sustained.
I was not alone in my enthusiasm. In the weeks immediately following the election of President Obama, Americans reported significant optimism about the future of race relations and racial equality. But late last week Gallup reported that post-election racial optimism has waned among all Americans, and particularly among black people.
On October 29, Gallup reported responses to the question: "Do you think that relations between blacks and whites will always be a problem for the United States or that a solution will eventually be worked out?" Responses reflected patterns similar to 1963, with 40% of Americans expecting race always to be a problem. And though black Americans had become more optimistic a year ago, they are now significantly more pessimistic about race in America.
These Gallup findings mirror decades of public opinion research showing that African Americans and whites differ dramatically on their perception of the existence of discrimination, and in their assessment of the potential for realizing a racially fair society. These differing perceptions of racial discrimination translate into enormous gaps in support for public policies. These gaps have effectively stymied effective coalitions for progressive policies for decades.
Despite the presence of white and Latino voters at the Newark rally on Sunday, this racial divide felt troubling and present.
Black Americans have become significantly more supportive of President Obama and more pessimistic about the country as the President has endured attacks that seem personal and racially motivated. This trend is potentially troublesome for several reasons. If black voters feel the need to rally around the President to protect him from racial attacks, then they are less able to function as full members of the coalition. Black voters need to be able to both praise and criticize the President in order to ensure their individual and collective interests are voiced.
Further, if President Obama’s poll numbers are primarily bolstered by an enthusiastic, but racially isolated core, then his administration becomes more vulnerable to unfairly racialized attacks from opponents. Those opponents could seek to cast President Obama as a protector of identity-group interests, rather than as a broad representative of American interests.
President Obama and his administration may seek to distance themselves from the negative implications of racialized support by enacting social conservatives policies. This was a strategy used by President Clinton during the second half of his first term. It has the perverse effect of punishing African Americans for their political support and loyalty.
Even as Democrats seek to pass health care reform they need also to aggressively rebuild the foundation of mullti-racial enthusiasm that drove the 2008 election. President Obama’s efficacy is seriously undermined to the extent that his base shrinks and divides along racial lines.
Even more important, Americans’ faith in our capacity to find common ground and achieve collective aims is eroding–quickly.