Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Is Obama the 'affirmative action president?'

Though his politics are not mine, I'm friendly with and very much like Steve Hayward, a prolific conservative writer who these days blogs at Power Line. Ben and I had him on our podcast this weekend to discuss his new book, "The Politically Incorrect Guide To Presidents," in which Hayward gives each president from Woodrow Wilson on a letter grade for their constitutional fealty. Democrats, as you might surmise, don't do well.

I let myself sound a bit exasperated at one main point during the discussion. In the book, Hayward says that President Obama can be fairly called the nation's first "affirmative action president." He suggests that Obama had a thin resume, and benefited from the nation's desire to elect a black man to the country's highest office.

Today, at Power Line, Steve affirms that stance by quoting Jim Geraghty at National Review:
It ties to a theory I’ve had for a while, that most apolitical voters desperately want to avoid concluding that the first African-American president of the United States is a failure, on par with a second term for Jimmy Carter. As a result, they will give Obama until the very last minute to demonstrate an ability to get the job done, to demonstrate that he can generate tangible improvements in their lives. But, if around October 2012, people don’t see tangible improvements in their lives, well, the bottom may fall out of his numbers. He’ll still have his loyal base, but the vast majority of independents will decide he just can’t get the job done.
There's an interesting discussion to be had about the role of Obama's race in his political fortune. But labeling him an "affirmative action president" is loaded terminology, suggesting that Obama's accomplishment in being elected is somehow tainted. Steve, I suspect, knows that. Interestingly, it doesn't just insult the president—it also insults the voters, who are presumably so fuzzy-headed with political correctness that they'll ride a sinking ship until it's too late. Obama's approval numbers over the last two years, I think, indicate otherwise.

In any case, the underlying conceit here is that Obama only benefits politically from his race. That's probably not the case: One study suggested the president lost as much as 5 percent of the 2008 vote based purely on his race. Certainly, the desperate attempts by Breitbart-style conservatives to link the president to the most obnoxious sorts of black nationalism—despite no real hint of such leanings in the president's actual governing record—suggest they're aware of the dynamic.

Like lots of black men, Obama had to overcome a racial headwind to achieve what he has, politically. (We have, thankfully, arrived at a point in our nation's history where that headwind was not determinative.) And like lots of black men, there are a few whites who tend to attribute those accomplishments to coddling and bleeding hearts rather than smarts and hard work. But it's a strange idea that a black man can only win politically, and almost never lose, because of his race. We haven't come that far, yet.


Rick Henderson said...

The notion of Obama as an "affirmative action president" could be taken on several levels -- not all of them offensive. He probably benefited from some racial set-aside to gain admission to Occidental or Columbia or Harvard Law. Those benefits were (and are) available, and he would have been foolish not to take advantage of them. That's not what Hayward was talking about.

There was, however, an undeniable "guilt" effect that I believe affected many white voters. For the first time, a major party had nominated a credible black contender for president. His thin resume only helped his candidacy. Given Bush fatigue, the lackluster alternative in John McCain, the financial meltdown, and the rather pathetic GOP campaign, it would not surprise me if a much larger percentage of voters gave Obama a pass on issues they would not have afforded Hillary Clinton, who was much better known and had her own baggage. I agree with Steve here.

In this sense, Obama actually got a break (a slight one) because of his race. Americans love a feel-good story, and in 2008, that was it. How many voters would admit, even to a pollster, that on the margins they pulled the lever for Obama because he was black is anyone's guess.

(I was living in Denver at the time, and a number of moderates I worked with or knew socially expressed these sentiments to me privately. Liberals were totally in the tank for him.)

You could not make exactly the same argument, about, say, Colin Powell had he decided to seek the presidency in 1996. His resume would have caused no problems. His lack of credibility among conservatives would have, as would his decision to run against Bill Clinton.

Lou Covey said...

We also have to keep in mind that there was a strong message that flowed in and out of media that if you didn't support Obama's presidency you were somehow a racist. The problem with most polemics is that they produce and equally in appropriate response.