PART 1—TWO QUESTIONS: Barack Obama is in his third year as president.
His approval ratings are down. It’s hard to know why that’s a surprise. Consider a few predecessors:
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson swept to a giant landslide win. In the 1968 New Hampshire primary, he was challenged from the left. Soon after, he withdrew his bid for re-election.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president, saying he wouldn’t lie to us. No one ever said he did—but the economy turned very bad. By the summer of 1979, his approval ratings were in the high 20s. (Presumably, his ratings were somewhat lower among white voters.) He was challenged from the left in the 1980 primaries, like LBJ before him.
The economy was bad during Reagan’s first years. His approvals kept going downhill.
In early 1991, George H. W. Bush was an acclaimed war-victor president. His approvals stood at 90 percent. But the economy went south, and so did his ratings. By the summer of 92, they stood at 30 percent.
Bill Clinton served during a rising economy. But so what? Even his overall ratings slid into the 30s at various times in his first several years. (Presumably, his ratings among whites were somewhat lower than his overall ratings.) Bonus point: In 1999 and 2000, his vice president was challenged from the left by a third-party run. Presumably, this cost him the White House.
In short, presidents tend to lose approval, especially if the economy stinks. This doesn’t necessarily make sense, but we the people often judge such matters rather crudely. This pattern 1s well established.
Back to the current president:
Barack Obama is serving during an awful economy. But now that his approvals have slid, at least one professor thinks she may know why this has occurred. Melissa Harris-Perry recently made the suggestion which follows—and she dropped a bit of an R-bomb in the process. Her piece appears in the October 10 Nation:
HARRIS-PERRY (9/21/11): President Obama has experienced a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans—from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent now. I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.In a rational world, the nation’s horrendous economy wouldn’t be seen as Obama’s fault. He did in fact inherit themess in which we're all entangled. But given the nation’s horrid economy, it would have been extremely surprising if his ratings hadn’t dropped in the face of the ongoing mess. But in this instance, Harris-Perry went searching for an explanation for the world’s most predictable outcome. In her opinion, much of the president’s drop among white voters “can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific.”
Harris-Perry goes on to say that next year’s election “is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent.” Her next sentence, which closes her piece, is a masterwork of professorial bafflegab:
“If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.”
Harris-Perry isn’t saying that Obama is currently being held to new standards. She doesn’t even say that he will be held to such standards next year. She merely says this: If he is held to such standards next year, it will be a triumph of racism. Except no, she doesn’t really say that! She merely says it will be possible to read such an outcome that way.
That closing statement was mightily nuanced. But earlier in her piece, Harris-Perry seemed to suggest that white liberals are exhibiting racism in their current judgments of Obama. Or that they’ve done so in the past, or something vaguely like that. (“If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.”) That said, her headline seemed a bit less vague on this score:
“Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama”
Harris-Perry’s piece has provoked controversy, as claims about race almost always do. Race is our most important topic—and it’s our most emotional topic. Given the brutal history of race in this country, it would be extremely strange if that weren’t the case.
Race is a very important topic. For that reason, race is given a special place in many of the nation’s forums. Within the law, it’s a “suspect classification/category.” Within our political debates, many people, including most black scholars, try to exhibit a bit of care in discussing this most important topic.
Harris-Perry was a bit less restrained in this piece, which doesn’t mean that she was wrong. That said, we think her piece raises two basic questions—two frameworks for discussion.
First, how careful should professors and pundits be in making claims and suggestions about racism? In making sweeping suggestions about very large groups of people? For our money, Harris-Perry wasn’t especially careful here. Was that a good idea?
Second, we think this piece raises another basic question, one we’ve discussed in recent years: How well is the liberal world being served by the nation’s professoriate—by “intellectual leaders” in general? In our view, Harris-Perry’s analytical work in this piece is exceptionally poor, like much of the work which emerges from the modern professoriate. (When they aren’t asleep in the woods, or on leave in France.)
We liberals have accepted this level of service for years. Isn’t it time we got off our duffs and learned to expect something better?
Alas! In the past few years, we liberals have had a grand old time, dropping the R-bomb in sweeping ways on members of the other tribe. But uh-oh! A few weeks ago, the worm started to turn.
Writing in the New York Times, Charles Blow came for the Hispanics. This week, writing in the Nation, Harris Perry has come for the white liberals.
As a general matter, what kind of work should we expect from the nation’s professoriate? And does it serve progressive interests when R-bombs get dropped in these ways?
Tomorrow: More on those dropping approvals