We're getting a scary preview of the final weeks of the 2012 presidential campaign. It's going to be all about race and race-baiting.
For anyone who grew up in the South not so long ago, the irony is thick, bitter and ugly. Democratic pols of earlier generations reserved their fiery rhetoric — of blaming black folks for faults and misdemeanors large and small — for the last fortnight of the primary campaign. Then they let fly.
Some of the desperate friends of Barack Obama are playing the race card already, as the president's poll numbers continue to crater in every ethnic and geographic category. The wise men in the White House avert their eyes from the data, trying not to look at the wreck on the highway. There's the hint of impending doom in poll findings among independents, Jews, Hispanics and even blacks, where the president has long been untouchable. His approval ratings have fallen dramatically as the economy continues to tank and evidence mounts that neither the president nor his wise men have a clue what to do about it. Doubts grow, not about the president's race, to which white voters everywhere have shown remarkable indifference, but about the president's competence.
Mr. Obama was elected nearly three years ago on the wings of hope and the breath of prayer. He has gone a long way as a salesman with a wink, easy banter and a good shoeshine. He had no experience in business and had barely made a mark in either the Illinois legislature or the U.S. Senate, but he had an ingratiating manner and he could preach a sermon like nobody since Billy Sunday, Billy Graham or Adam Clayton Powell. But now a lot of people black and white are frightened — indeed most people are flat-out scared - and the only people talking about race are Mr. Obama's friends.
Morgan Freeman, the actor who has a home in the Mississippi Delta where he has prosperous business partnerships with white folks, thinks America is as sinister as ever, and then some. He told an interviewer for CNN that the election of Mr. Obama has made racism worse, not better, because the tea party "is going to do whatever they can to get this black man outta here." With that, he lapsed into incoherence.
The president's slide in popularity, after his election raised such high hopes, "just shows the weak, dark, underside of America. We're supposed to be better than that. We really are. That's why all those people were in tears when Obama was elected president. 'Ah, look at what we are. Look at how this is America.' You know? And then it just sort of started turning because these people surfaced, like stirring up muddy water."
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, who decried Mr. Obama's compromise on the borrowing limit as "a sugar-coated Satan sandwich" (you should get cheese on that, with a side of fries), urges black voters to keep their complaining in check because "nobody wants to do anything that would empower the people who hate Obama." He didn't identify those people, but we're entitled to think they're of a pale persuasion.
The president knows he must find a way to restore the black enthusiasm of 2008 if he has even a shot at a second term, so he's determined to reprise the spirit of the civil rights struggle of the '60s. "Take off your bedroom slippers," he told the Congressional Black Caucus. "Put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complainin'. Stop grumblin'. Stop cryin'." But it's not clear who they'll be marching against.
Finding a boogeyman among white folks will be difficult this year. Cotton Ed Smith, Bull Connor, Herman Talmadge and the bad guys of yore have been in the graveyard for a long time. Even more improbable than a black man in the White House - everyone is accustomed to that - is a Rasmussen poll released this week suggesting that in the unlikely event the election were held today, Mr. Obama would beat Herman Cain by only five points. This is a week after Mr. Cain won a straw vote in Florida, leading all Republican candidates. Mr. Cain, the son of a janitor and a cleaning lady, is that rare businessman of any color with a fire in his belly for politics. He sings the music of America, and he knows all the words.
Herman Cain's chances to win the White House are easy to discount; the odds say he's an unlikely star shooting across a troubled sky, soon to disappear below the far horizon. But even the brief prospect of a black Republican challenger for a black president says something loud and clear. What a country.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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