Obama’s Poll Problem: White Backers in ’08 Are Deserting Him

Peter Brown, Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2010

As the folks in the White House begin looking toward President Barack Obama’s presumed re-election campaign in 2012, there is one statistic that might worry them more than any other: Little more than a third of white voters currently think the president is doing a good job.

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Mr. Obama’s job approval rating remains in the mid-to-high-40s overall only because he gets a thumbs up from more than 90% of blacks and gets majority support from Hispanics.

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A Potentially Big Problem

Mr. Obama’s weakness among whites, who comprise almost three quarters of the electorate even as the nation’s population becomes more racially diverse, is a potentially sizable political problem for the nation’s first African-American president.

The White House clearly recognizes that. Mr. Obama, trying to shore up support for Democratic candidates this year, is reaching out to both minorities and some selected groups of white voters, especially young people. {snip}

The easy explanation for Mr. Obama’s declining approval among whites, and one some will certainly adopt, is that these numbers reflect racism on the part of white voters. That may be the case for some, but White House political strategists would be sticking their heads in the sand to see it that way.

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Mr. Obama’s weakness among whites tracks other Democratic presidents and wannabes, all of whom were white. No Democratic presidential nominee has won a majority of the white vote since Lyndon Johnson in 1964–even Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who won the White House anyway.

Factoring in the Economy

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Clearly, one of the reasons for the drop in President Obama’s poll numbers is the lousy economy, which he inherited from his predecessor. A better economy will help the president among all races.

But the wide difference in job approval between whites and blacks almost certainly stems from the fact that Democrats have historically been the political party of government. Their candidates tend to embrace governmental solutions to problems while Republicans are much more likely to see the private sector as the solver of societal ills.

As a candidate, Mr. Obama benefited from perhaps the most influential event to occur in the final 45 days of a presidential campaign in modern times–the Wall Street meltdown. Republican John McCain narrowly led many polls in early September just before the financial collapse.

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Reversing Opinion

But many of these same voters have now reversed their opinion about the president. Last week’s Quinnipiac poll found only 35% of whites gave the president a positive job approval. Public opinion polls generally don’t ask why voters approve or disapprove of a president.

The gap between black and white support for the president, however, comes from more than just African-Americans’ pride in one of their own.

As a group, black voters are much more in tune with the notion of a larger government role for an understandable reason: the public sector was the instrument of civil-rights laws and economic-opportunity programs much earlier than private industry. During the health-care overhaul debate, for instance, polls found African-Americans favored the proposal while whites opposed it.

Health care has been just one area, albeit a major one, in which this president and his policies have moved toward a larger government role in American life.

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