JONATHAN CHAIT FEBRUARY 4, 2010
Jon Chait reads far too much into my analysis of Obama’s weakness with white working class voters. He mistakes a special for a general theory of the Obama presidency. I am the last person to attribute all of Obama’s political difficulties to his inability to touch the hearts of the white working class. If I had to explain the rise in voter disapproval of his presidency, I’d rate the rise of unemployment, Americans’ inherent distrust of government programs, and the intransigence of the Republicans well above the special political problems I described and tried to explain. But – and here’s the point – Obama has always had a problem reaching working class voters. As a result, these voters – and especially white working class voters – are the most disapproving of his presidency.
You can go back to the 2008 election. In the primaries, he had trouble winning white working class voters against Hillary Clinton in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Against John McCain in November, Obama won only 40 percent of white voters with some or no college education. By contrast, he won 47 percent of college-educated white voters. If you look at the Jan. 14 Pew poll, you’ll find that Obama’s job approval among whites with some college or less – at only 35 percent. His approval among college grads is ten points higher.
I haven’t seen polls about who “likes” Obama disaggregated by race and class, but I don’t find the question of whether a voter “likes” a president very illuminating. Nor do I find questions about sharing values very interesting. I would like to see a poll that asks something like this: do you feel this president is fighting for you? I think you’d find in this case that the results would roughly mirror the results of job approval and disapproval. That’s why, I think, Obama’s political staff has begun inserting the word “fight” in every line he utters. But that won’t necessarily solve his political problem with these voters.
Is the problem racism? Well, certainly it is with some white voters. But I’d say that Obama has historically had a problem with the black as well as the white working class. It showed up when Obama challenged Bobby Rush in 2000 in the Democratic Congressional primary and lost by two-to-one. It may have shown up in the early months of the 2008 presidential primary when many black Democrats – partly, to be sure, because they didn’t think Obama could win – favored Hillary Clinton. So Obama’s problem can’t be reduced to racism.
I think it does have something to do with the evanescent realm of politics and how a politician projects himself to the public. In Obama’s case, it has to do with his coming off as being out of a different social stratum than the working class. That’s not a sin, but it’s a failing for a politician. Obama can still win these voters over. Getting 40 percent in 2008 was a respectable result, and probably had something to do with their feeling that – empathy aside –Obama was better equipped to deal with the country’s economic crisis than his opponent. Obama can still recapture their support on these grounds – and hopefully he will.