President Obama is transforming from being the “post-racial” to the most racial president. In a videotaped appeal made on behalf of the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Obama says he wants to “reconnect” with “young people, African-Americans, Latinos and women who powered our victory in 2008 [to] stand together once again.” This attempt to reconnect reveals a substantial disconnect.
Mr. Obama is both president and Democratic Party leader, so political appeals of this type are a fact of life. In this case, Mr. Obama showed a degree of tone-deafness. The historic first black president of the United States should be more cautious than to explicitly call for race-based support. Such a frank appeal seeking to exploit ethnic and gender divisions reinforces the suspicion that Mr. Obama and his party do not represent the whole country. The subtext of the video is “white men need not apply.”
Mr. Obama seeks to replay the romantic vision of 2008, a supposedly mobilizing election in which he was swept into office by the previously marginalized, the tuned out and the hopeless. Mr. Obama, through the force of his personality, inspired them to go to the polls and make history.
It’s a nice story, but only partly true. Some groups, especially young blacks, did turn out in significantly larger numbers than in the past. But overall, turnout did not set records. The surge in voting by some previously disaffected groups was offset by large sectors of traditional voters who stayed home. These Americans did not want to vote for John McCain but could not bring themselves to support Barack Obama. These two factors canceled each other out, and overall turnout in 2008 was 64 percent, the same as 2004.
The voters who stayed home in 2008 - white, male, educated, middle-income - are now back with a vengeance. Mr. Obama and his fellow Democrats won’t be able to coast to victory in 2010 and will be lucky to stave off a major defeat. The Republicans benefit from a Congress at historically low approval ratings and a sense that Democratic leadership has placed the nation on a course that will be catastrophic if not corrected. The peddlers of hope have delivered fear.
Mr. Obama also has seen some erosion in support among some of the groups to whom he was reaching out. According to Gallup, over the course of his presidency, Mr. Obama’s support among female voters has dropped 17 percent; among those aged 18-29, he’s down 16 percent; and among Hispanics, support has lagged 12 percent. Black support remains in the high 80 percent range.
The O Force’s big problem, however, is declining support among other groups. Mr. Obama has lost 20 points among white voters (by far the largest voting bloc), 18 points with those who are married, 14 points among independent voters, 18 points among middle-income voters, 17 points among men and 19 points among seniors. All of these groups now poll between 43 percent and 48 percent support for the president.
Mr. Obama will have a hard time mobilizing his base for November. In the 2006 midterm congressional election, only 17 percent of black men under 25 voted. That’s a core Obama support group. At the same time, 70 percent of white men over 65 - strong Obama opponents - turned out. So between traditional apathy among core support groups, large losses of support from moderate and white voters, historically low congressional approval ratings and a sense that the current government is driving the bus over a cliff, Democrats face a perfect storm in 2010.
Mr. Obama’s attempted appeal to the party’s ethnic and gender base this early in the election year has a tinge of panic. But at least Democrats are admitting they are the party of racial identity. This is how they think, how they legislate and how they make policy. It’s refreshing for them to be so public about it.