Jacob Weisberg seems to have caused quite a stir with this Slate column asserting that “racism is the only reason Obama might lose”. (HT Ace, many others)
The argument is that with the economic situation, the dissatisfaction with the current governing party, etc., as well as Obama’s undoubted charisma, the fundamentals all work heavily in his favor. His primary shortfall of expected support compared to those fundamentals is among “older white voters”. Therefore, it’s racism.
While I agree with Weisberg’s critics that this column is impolitic and demonstrates the bias inherent in mainstream media attitudes, I’m going to say, nevertheless, the Weisberg has a point.
Let’s boil it down to the very specific question: would Obama (given the same fundamentals) currently have more support among the general population (including those “older white voters”) if he were a white man, given everything else the same? I think the answer is quite possibly yes.
However, this sword cuts both ways, because: if Obama were a white man, there’s no way in heck he would be the (D) nominee for President right now, in the first place. In fact, he would not have been given a prominent convention speaking slot four years ago. He would not have won his Senate seat. Obama’s rise to prominence has been inextricably tied up with his race up to this point.
Is this “racism” or is this about broader notions of image and identity? Why exactly did the progressive crowd go ga-ga for Obama, and why exactly might those “older white voters” be wary of him?
Let’s do a thought experiment: suppose Barack Obama’s name had been, instead, something like (oh I don’t know) Leroy Washington. Everything else the same, but his name is some more traditional black American name.
Question: Would the hipsters who fell so ga-ga for “Barack Obama” still have fallen in love with a politician called “Leroy Washington” to the same degree? I think quite possibly not. (On the flip side, I suspect a “Leroy Washington” would be doing better in general polling among older white voters…) I don’t think Obama is simply a “black man” here; his image is more complex than that.
Barack Obama’s appeal and meteoric rise to the national stage has not been based on substance, it has been based on image. To people who like him, his image has an undeniable appeal that fits into certain emotional slots – rings their bells in certain ways.
It’s just the inevitable fact that the flip side can also be true: there will be constituencies who aren’t so attracted to that image, or are even put off by it. Do those “older white voters” disdain Obama “because he’s black”? Or could it be “because his name sounds foreign”? Because with a childhood all over the place in different countries, they’re suspicious and wary of how ingrained can be his love for the U.S.? Because he has a wife who has said things that sound militant? Because his posters look ‘Soviet’?
I say it’s possibly: all of the above and more. To Obama’s fans, these things were features, probably. But that doesn’t mean they are features to everyone, and the problem is, when a politician’s appeal is so heavily based on image, this can backfire quickly depending on who he’s talking to.
Live by image, die by image.