President Obama on his race, his popularity, and federalism

January 19th, 2014

In a wide-ranging interview in The New Yorker, President Obama touches on a number important topics, including his race, how he is viewed because his race, and the relationship between federalism and race. A Bloomberg report notes that these are his “most direct comments on how race has affected his political standing since he’s been in office.”

First, the President notes that part of his unpopularity stems from the fact that people “don’t like the idea of a black President.”

“There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President,” Obama said.

Second, he observes that other people, black and white alike, gave him the “benefit of the doubt” because he was a “black President.”

“Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.” The latter group has been less in evidence of late.

I’m not sure what to make sure of this “flip side” of the coin analogy. On the one side, people don’t like him because he is black. On the other side, people like him because he’s black.  But this isn’t a two sided-coin. Certainly there are people (of all races) who like him because his job as President, and there are people (of all races) who dislike him because of his job as President.

I recognize the New Yorker may have taken these two quotations out of context, but it severely oversimplifies the President’s views of his own popularity, and risks racially polarizing a remarkable feat–five decades after the March on Washington, a black president won re-election by a wide margin with  40% of the white vote–and obscuring the actual merits and demerits of this presidency, coming off the worst year of the administration.

As Bloomberg notes, “Obama won 43 percent of the white vote in 2008 against 55 percent for opponent John McCain.” In 2012, “Republican candidate Mitt Romney won 59 percent of the white vote, compared with Obama’s 39 percent.” By way of comparison, Bill Clinton received 39% of the white vote in 1992 (and this on top of a declining percentage of white Americans voting for Democrats).

From 2008 to 2012, Obama lost four percent of the white vote. I suppose some of that change could be attributed to the first side of the coin Obama identified, though I imagine if a person is inclined to dislike him because he is black, that sentiment would not magically manifest in 2009. So what do we attribute the drop-off too? Is it white people, who wanted him to succeed because he was black, lost that sentiment from 2008 to 2012? Or, maybe, just maybe, people opposed his policies and realized that the country needs a new direction?

The President’s comments also remind me of remarks Rush Limbaugh made in 2003 concerning Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Here is what the President said:

“Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”

Here is what Limbaugh said:

“I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well,” Limbaugh said. “There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.”

I think the comments are similar, coming from completely different angles. Both noted that some people are willing to give a black person in a unique position of power the benefit of the doubt because they want him to do well for reasons beyond his qualifications and performance.

The President continued the theme of race by connecting those who oppose expanding the power of the federal government with nullificationists and segregationists.

“There is a historic connection between some of the arguments that we have politically and the history of race in our country, and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle those issues,” he went on. “You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government—that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable—and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there.”

These remarks may prompt an engaging discussion in a constitutional law classroom, focusing on critical racial studies, but I am troubled when the President of the United States offers this not as a theory of society, but as a way to explain why millions of Americans oppose him (including many who may have voted for him twice–his popularity among Democrats has plummeted). In the President’s mind that those who oppose his agenda due to concerns about federalism and state’s rights are motivated by the same “philosophy” and “historic[al] connection” that supported John C. Calhoun and Jim Crow.

The President continues, and attributes this “history” to explain “Arguments against [his] Presidency”

And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans.

The President is blaming opposition to his presidency from federalists who are animated by the spirit of John C. Calhoun. This is par for the course for Think Progress (my good friend Ian Millhiser loves to use the Calhoun image whenever he can), but is (sorry to use the phrase again) unprecedented for a President. Opposing Obama is like opposing equal rights for African-Americans. You get the dichotomy? Now how do you feel about opposing the President.

And then we have another “flip side” from the President. What’s with this turn of phrase?

The flip side is I think it’s important for conservatives to recognize and answer some of the problems that are posed by that history, so that they understand if I am concerned about leaving it up to states to expand Medicaid that it may not simply be because I am this power-hungry guy in Washington who wants to crush states’ rights but, rather, because we are one country and I think it is going to be important for the entire country to make sure that poor folks in Mississippi and not just Massachusetts are healthy.”

Now, this comment cannot be directed only at “conservatives.” No, it can’t. For Justices Kagan (whom he appointed) and Breyer (appointed by Clinton) joined Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, in holding that this “power-hungry guy in Washington” could not coerce the states into joining the Medicaid expansion. Recall that his Secretary of HHS told states that if they did not expand Medicaid they would lose *all* of their funding. This is federalism, and justiciable limits on the spending power. This is not nullification or segregation. I would hope that a former constitutional law professor knows better, but this doesn’t even matter anymore.

This interview is striking. Not because it represents a change in the President’s thinking. No, it represents a president, no longer concerned with reelection, telling us what he thought all along, but could not say.