The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Thursday, October 6, 2011

When the Messenger Shoots the Message

The Disconnect Between Obama and Obama’s Ideas Among White Voters

An old proverb suggests it is rash and unwise to shoot the messenger just because we strongly dislike the message they bear. Yet what if we strongly dislike the messenger, whatever our reasons? If we shoot too frequently and too broadly, we could end up destroying the message along with the despised courier – a message that might just as easily contain good news as bad news. The National Journal thinks this might be what white voters are doing to President Obama.

As evidence, the magazine cites its most recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection survey. This poll, like many others, shows Obama’s overall approval rating among white voters at a dismal thirty-five percent or lower. Whites believe Obama worsened the economy, rather than improving it, by almost a three-to-one ratio. Likewise, white voters say, also by substantial margin, that they trust Republicans over Obama to handle deficits and the economy in general.

President Obama's popularity is less
than half that of some of his proposed
policies among white voters
On the other hand, when asked to rate five Obama proposals to control deficits and create jobs against five Republican ideas, white voters displayed a clear preference for Obama’s policies, scoring four of them in the top five.

Obama’s proposals to give tax cuts to businesses hiring new employees and/or paying raises to existing ones as well as giving funds to state and local governments to prevent teacher and public safety layoffs both garnered seventy percent approval or higher. Two other proposal to assist struggling homeowners refinance at lower rates and increased federal spending to rebuild public schools and transportation infrastructure both earned sixty percent plus approval.

Top Republicans ideas were not just less popular – at times, they bordered on unpopular. A GOP proposal to pass a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was their only one in the top five. Proposals to extend the Bush tax cuts for all earners and cut corporate tax rates just managed to win majorities of approval. Proposals to require regulators to cut at least one existing regulation for every new one passed and repealing healthcare reform received less than fifty percent approval.

Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz argues this is bad news for Republicans because it demonstrates that white voters are souring on the GOP at least as fast as they are on Obama. I agree with him on this point. However, I feel skeptical toward his further contention that 2012 will defy conventional political wisdom, with voters looking forward, rather than backward, when judging Obama as the incumbent.

Instead, I am more inclined to agree with Republican pollster Glen Bolger, who predicts preferences toward his policies will not help Obama at the ballot box if significant improvements to the economy remain unperceived by Election Day 2012.

Even if it is only an interesting side note, the question persists as to why the divide between white voters’ fondness for Obama policies versus their mistrust of him as a politician and a leader?

The answer is not racism, anti-intellectualism, or anti-elitism on the part of white voters. Neither is it because Obama’s “increasingly ill-concealed expressions of contempt” toward those who disagree with him have promoted “increasingly widespread counter-contempt” from the public, as Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal neatly concludes. Nor is it because Obama is a Democratic candidate from a traditional blue state and therefore lacks “a feel for how people in the other Party think,” as the normally sensible David Brooks weirdly surmises in the New York Times.

Racism, anti-intellectualism, and contempt are still around in modern U.S. culture. However, they are but extreme examples of a larger, subtler fear and disillusionment on the part of many white Americans. Whites feel increasingly disconnected, apathetic, and even hostile toward government because they increasingly find it harder to connect with the people now running this country.

The problem is not that Barack Obama is black or raised by a single mother. The problem is that his father was from Kenya and/or that he spent a short period during his youth living in Indonesia and being educated in an Islamic madarasaa. On the Republican side, recent demurrals to run by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin leaves conservatives facing a frontrunner in Mitt Romney who is from the liberal Northeast and a Mormon.

There is nothing wrong with any of these things in their own right – they just are not what we commonly see in Presidential candidate biographies.

White voters feel increasingly marginalized and pushed out of power. Again, this is not racism. However, it is one thing for them to learn/practice tolerance toward traditionally discriminated minority groups. It is quite another thing to accept serenely new status as a minority group themselves.

Terry Nelson, an experienced high-ranking Republican operative, concedes that while support for Obama among lower-income, less-educated white voters – never high to being with – has dropped since 2008, “The truth is, Obama needs fewer white voters in 2012 than he did in 2008.” Nelson continues, “The country is changing. In every election cycle, every year, every day, this country becomes more ethnically diverse.”

There is precedent for Obama riding this trend to victory. In 2010, Democratic Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado prevailed as a first-time candidate against a Tea Party-backed opponent by assembling a coalition of Latino voters, college-educated transplants to Colorado, and Independents.

The rise of the largely white and conservative Tea Party, with its unconcealed hostility toward government and its desire for a return to “the Founders” and the past is rooted in (subconscious) fear among white voters that government is progressively no longer theirs to choose and control in this country.

Yet there is another side to this equation. Obama’s current unpopularity is also a creature of his own breeding. Polls show a majority of voters still do not blame him for the bulk of our current economic woes. However, two and half years into his Presidency earns him significant culpability for failure to fix or improve conditions.

His missteps included drifting right to avoid charges his ideology was too left, too much trust in the opposition working with him for the good of the nation, and too much trust in the legislators of his own Party to rise above partisan posturing and pork barrel boondoggling when drafting legislation he favored. His disconnection and cool passivity dismayed his liberal base, left Independents first confused and then disenchanted, and allowed his worst critics to define most debates.

It has been some time since his re-election bid was the President’s race to loose. Sometime during the faltering economic recovery this past summer, Obama hit a new critical mass politically, such that his re-election chances passed largely, if not entirely, beyond his control and became Republicans’ race to lose.

Hence, the National Journal’s reported disconnect between the (un)popularity of Obama versus Obama policies with white voters. Always alienated from this particular messenger to some degree, his failure to improve their lives and build trust that he understood their problems/shared their values caused many whites to start firing so frequently and so broadly at Obama that they are taking out his good ideas with him. What is more, the disrespect Obama experiences is so often self-inflicted that this may well be an instance when the messenger gets shot for shooting the message.

There is much I like about Obama but I feel confident the U.S. will get along just fine without him past 2012 if things work out that way. I am less sanguine of our chances without some of his good ideas passed into law.


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