Yesterday over lunch, a (white) Republican friend and I were talking about how much we like Barack Obama as a political figure, even though we don’t like his politics much. My friend said he thought it was depressing how more black voters say they’re for Hillary than Obama. To him, it’s a sign that they’d rather stick with a Democrat who can be relied upon to mouth the same old liberal lines on race, rather than go with a black candidate who promises to move the national conversation forward. I told him that I saw the reticence of black voters to go for Obama over a white candidate a sign of political maturity, i.e., that they’ll chose a candidate based on his or her positions, not skin color. But I think my friend had the more interesting point.
I think Rod has the better of the argument here, not least since it isn’t clear as a matter of policy where Obama sharply differs from Clinton with respect to those “same old liberal lines on race” and it also isn’t clear that huge numbers of black Democratic voters are as tired of the “same old liberal lines on race” as white Republicans and conservatives are. Obama does have a different rhetorical style from most other black politicians when it comes to matters of race, as Shelby Steele has described here, but I submit that this style is part of the reason why Obama is an appealing figure to Rod and Rod’s friend (and many other whites around the country) and why he fares worse among black Democratic voters than you might expect, given that he does have the best chance of being a major party nominee for President of any black candidate in history. Besides the voters’ own preferences, there are complicating factors of Obama’s perceived unelectability on account of his race (an issue that bothers the campaign enough to have Obama’s wife address it publicly) or the anxiety among some black voters that he would be targeted by assassins. For this latter group, Obama’s problem, ironically, is that he is too viable of a candidate to “risk” supporting, because that would expose him to the presumed backlash that these voters fear. Added to these things has to be Obama’s professorial, high-minded style and the more limited support Obama has among blue-collar voters, combined with the aversion of Democratic constituencies (shared by most constituencies of either party) to politicians who aren’t interested in winning spoils for their side but who want to “fix” politics all together and cooperate with the other party. For a Democratic Party base that is, not surprisingly, quite angry about the last few years, Obama’s desire to transcend the “smallness of our politics” sounds like another way of saying that he won’t fight. Top that off with his lack of experience fighting close or competitive major elections, which suggests that he isn’t prepared to fight a general election even if he were willing to be more combative, and you can see why Obama struggles to get a majority of black voters behind him.
Another element would have to be the well-known sense of affection for, and political loyalty to, former President Clinton among most black Democrats, which ends up benefiting his wife. I suspect that one of the many reasons why Obama is so intent on stopping Clinton from appropriating the mantle of the Clinton Administration is that most black Democratic voters probably view that period favourably, so he has to sever the connection between her and any perceived accomplishments of the administration while tying her to the political fights of the past that Obama and some of his supporters believe the public doesn’t want to relive. Generally, I think this assumption that Democratic voters don’t want a symbolic return to the ’90s is mistaken. As much as the Clinton era disappointed progressives, and even though the decade did see the rise of the Republican majority in Congress, it was the only time in the last sixty years when a Democrat won two presidential terms in his own right. I think Democratic voters as a whole are ultimately going to look favourably on the chance for a “second” Clinton presidency, even if it means ignoring their doubts and reservations about this Clinton, in exchange for the chance at another eight years of controlling the White House. (In this respect, the Democratic response to Clinton is similar, though not identical, to the lemming-like consensus that built up around George W. Bush in 1999-2000 that was only briefly challenged by McCain, and McCain’s fate that year is telling for Obama’s hopes.) If most black voters don’t have doubts and reservations about Clinton in the first place, it makes that much more sense that they would end up supporting her. In this, they are responding like most other Democratic voters.
P.S. There is probably also a question in the minds of many voters, and not just black Democrats, about what Obama’s “moving the national conversation forward” would actually mean. If it is nothing more than bloviating about unity, I think most people will find that unsatisfying. Unless there is some significant difference in policy, it seems to me that this “compliment” for Obama is a concession that one of the chief reasons to prefer him is the difference in his style of rhetoric. In the end, the complaint or expectation that black Democratic voters should respond more favourably to what is basically a rhetorical smokescreen to cover up for the candidate’s lack of preparation for the office he is seeking gives these voters even less credit.