Monday, September 14, 2009

White Flight

Joan Walsh at takes a look at why President Obama is losing support with white voters.

Between January and the end of May, Obama’s white support went up and down a point or two, but stayed close to the 60 percent mark. The week that ended May 10, Obama had a 60 percent approval rating. Then in late May it began to sink steadily. Of course, the end of May marked the first racially charged controversy of Obama’s presidency, the nomination of Sotomayor and the furor over her “wise Latina” remarks.

Obama’s white support trended slowly downward throughout the summer in the weekly Gallup poll, but took another relatively large (4 point) drop between July 19 and July 26, a fiery week that saw the arrest of Skip Gates, Obama’s comment that Cambridge police acted “stupidly” in that incident, followed by Obama’s “recalibration” of those words. I said at the time that Obama’s commenting on the Gates mess was a mistake, even if it was a completely understandable one. Replying reflexively, as a victim of racial profiling, Obama was sincere — but in that moment, there’s no denying, he got blacker to a segment of the white population.

That same crazy week also featured the rise of Birtherism as represented by a screaming woman interrupting moderate GOP Rep. Mike Castle’s town hall claiming Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. It was a harbinger: August brought a wave of frenzied anti-Obama organizing at raucous meetings — what a Republican fundraising group proudly labeled “town hells” — where Birthers and Deathers and gun-toting loons accused Obama of ignoring the Constitution, imposing socialism and generally destroying the country. Obama’s support among whites continued to drop, to a low of 43 percent at the end of the month.

I agree with her overall premise — the non-stop attacks from the right wing and the number of them that played off the fact that he’s Not Our Kind have been a powerful force in driving down the president’s approval rating — and it has added to the fact that his policies and agenda are a marked contrast to what we’ve had to live through for the last eight years. Ms. Walsh makes it very clear that she does not think that racism is the primary reason for the white flight; any Democrat would have had a tough go trying to push through the changes to healthcare and financial accountability. But you can’t entirely rule out the likelihood that the president’s race has something to do with it, even if it is subconscious.

The way to overcome that is to keep on going. The number of people who support the overall goals of the president’s healthcare agenda and his reforms in banking are in the majority across the board. All the shrieking and crying from the Glenn Becks of the world only make the case that reasonable people, regardless of political affiliation, don’t subscribe to the insane paranoia of the Birthers, the Deathers, and whatever the newest -er is this week. And while I won’t go so far as to agree wholeheartedly with Bill Maher’s exhortation that the president become an “asshole” because they’re the people who get things done, I do think that his recent — since last Wednesday — tack of getting tough with his critics and letting his supporters know that he’s not going to cave in too much to the GOP will shore up support not just among the people who voted for him but with the people who want leadership no matter who it comes from. That is clearly the one thing the crazies do not have going for them.