In his 2008 "A More Perfect Union" speech, presidential candidate Barack Obama declared, "Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now." Then he tried his best to ignore it.
At least in public, that is. It says a lot about the trickiness of being the nation's first black or, if you prefer, biracial president that Obama noticeably avoided saying much about race or racism before that speech, which he delivered to calm the furor over his former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.'s taped "God damn America" remarks.
And Obama has avoided addressing the issue ever since. As author and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote in The Atlantic, citing research by political scientist Daniel Gillion at the University of Pennsylvania, Obama talked less about race in his first two years in office than any Democratic president since 1961.
It is not hard to understand why. Even in his near-silence on matters of race, his critics in conservative blogs and cable TV talk shows often sound like they can't separate Obama from Minister Louis Farrakhan.
That's politics. When your biggest asset is your lack of scariness, your opponents will focus on making you more scary.
That may partially explain why after four years in office, President Obama remains unpopular with white men without college degrees.
Most white male voters, particularly those without degrees, have been turning away from the Democratic Party since the mid-1960s civil rights era. But polls since midsummer found Obama's white support has sunk from surprisingly high four years ago to historic lows.
A mid-October Washington Post/ABC News tracking poll puts Romney ahead of Obama among white voters by a huge margin, 60 percent to 37 percent. Obama's support among blacks and Hispanics was about the same in 2008, but his support among whites has declined from 43 percent four years ago.
Among men, a poll by Quinnipiac University found Obama attracting just 29 percent of noncollege white men in July, down from 32 percent in Quinnipiac's most recent national survey in April. Similar ABC/Washington Post surveys had nearly identical results. Romney, by comparison, drew 56 percent in Quinnipiac's poll and 65 percent with ABC/Washington Post.
A later National Journal study of exit polls found Obama's level of support among white men has fallen lower than any Democratic presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan beat President Jimmy Carter in1980.
Yet, I believe that those who attribute that race-gender gap to white racism are as dangerously unfair and overly simplistic as those who say black racism is the reason why 95 percent of black voters supported Obama in 2008.
I think Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat who retires at the end of the year, makes a good point when he argues that even rural white Southern voters like those who helped him win his seat still can be lured back to "the party of Andrew Jackson." First, he says, Democrats need to get past their "interest-group politics" and appeal to shared cultural values.
Webb pushed that argument in a July 22, 2010, Wall Street Journal op-ed titled, "Diversity and the myth of white privilege." Advocating for working-class white males, particularly in the South, as the last group to be left out of affirmative action programs, he cited research data that showed those men to be almost as historically underdeveloped educationally and economically as black descendants of slavery.
Republican consultant Mike Murphy, a past adviser to Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain, offered a similar assessment at a Harvard panel last summer. "Democrats have a class model for politics," Murphy said. "They don't understand that the real fault line is culture. And we tend to win the cultural questions."
David "Mudcat" Saunders, a prominent Virginia-based Democratic strategist, agreed with Murphy. Democrats could win rural white Southerners again with the right "appeal to the culture," he told me, that lures enough persuadable voters from the Republican column.
Why, my fellow liberals often ask, do working-class voters so often vote for the class that pushes tax cuts for the wealthy? The short answer: Money isn't everything. Nothing connects quite like shared culture to persuade voters that, despite other appearances, you're really on their side.
Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.
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