Friday, August 3, 2012

The president is neither a uniter nor a divider

Jonathan Martin writes in Politico today about Obama's "problem in the South." Now, there are a number of important problems with this article (e.g.: this), although, in fairness, Martin is trying to deal with an important and pretty intractable issue. I don't know who exactly thought that Obama's election would transform race relations in the South, but if those people do exist, sure, they're probably disappointed.

The major problem here is pinning hopes of overcoming racial and political polarization on one person, even if that person is the president. Obama, Bush, and Clinton ran for president promising to bridge divides, and they weren't completely disingenuous when they did so. But party polarization, no less racial polarization, is far bigger than the president. These are massive historic and political forces, and they do not shift in direction because senators decide to sit across party lines during the State of the Union Address or because the president has a beer with a white police officer and the African American professor he wrongly arrested.

Importantly, racial and party polarization are deeply intertwined in this country. The main reason the parties have moved apart over the past few decades is that white southerners -- historically some of the most conservative voters in the country -- got over their hatred of Lincoln and joined his party, while African Americans -- traditionally liberal on many issues -- have increasingly voted Democratic. The opposition of white southerners to Obama isn't strictly about race. John Kerry only received the vote of 14% of whites in Mississippi in 2004. But Obama actually did worse there, despite the fact that he improved on Kerry's vote share nationally by over five points. Race undoubtedly plays a role, but it's not like a white Chicago Democrat named Barry Dunham would have done a whole lot better in the Deep South.

Martin's article is filled with some kindly advice from southern politicians, from Jim Webb to Lindsey Graham to John Lewis, mostly encouraging Obama to spend more time in the Deep South. To the extent that Obama isn't doing that in an election year, it's because his campaign has no interest in expending limited campaign resources in an uncompetitive region. Beyond that, though, he should obviously feel free to visit and chat with folks there or in any other state. But to blame Obama, even in part, for a failure to be popular among white southerners is to turn a blind eye to history.

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