04/06/2014 09:44 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2014

Obama and the Lingering Significance of Race

In the sixth year of the Obama presidency, how much has the president's race contributed to the implacable opposition he has faced?

As readers of these posts will recall, I have not been shy about criticizing Obama's frequently disappointing leadership. A New York Times Sunday editorial put it almost painfully, criticizing Obama's timorousness on the issue of immigration reform: "It"s hard to know when he will finally stir himself to do something big and consequential." Ouch.

Racism should not be an alibi for clear failures by this president to maximize the moment. On the other hand, critics should never forget the role of race in the Obama era.

As the first African American to ascend to the presidency, Obama has bent over backwards to be reassuring to his white countrymen, almost to a fault. Even when race was unmistakably an issue, as it surely is in Republican voter suppression, or the racial dimension of who suffered disproportionately from the subprime housing collapse, the president has gone out of his way not to mention race.

On the rare occasions that he has talked explicitly about race, as in his eloquent March 2008 speech as a candidate defusing the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy or his recent "My Brothers' Keeper" initiative on behalf of young black men, he has done so delicately and almost reluctantly. On the rare occasion when he acted on impulse and spoke from the heart, he got burned, as when he criticized the false arrest in 2009 of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and accused Cambridge police of acting "stupidly."

In some respects, Obama is damned if he talks explicitly about race, and damned if he doesn't. There has been a long-simmering controversy about whether supporters of the Tea Party are more racially prejudiced than the average American, with some solid public opinion evidence suggesting that they are. However, well beyond the Tea Party hard core, there is evidence that race does play a role.

Consider a recent Gallup analysis of the oddity of older Americans turning against the Democrats. As Gallup points out, seniors have long favored Democrats over Republicans. Two good reasons are Democrats' strong support of Social Security and Medicare.

In the period between 1992 and 2010, the Democrats' advantage among older voters bounced around between 14 percentage points and 4 points, and was as wide as 13 points as recently as 2006. But after 2009, voters over 65 tended to favor Republicans. In the latest surveys, they favor Republicans by three points.

As Gallup notes, older voters are substantially whiter than younger voting groups:

U.S. party preferences are strongly polarized along racial lines [emphasis in the original], and one reason seniors are more Republican now is that they are racially distinct from other age groups. Eighty-five percent of those 65 and older are non-Hispanic whites, according to Gallup estimates, compared with 77 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds, 66 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds, and 54 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds.

It's also the case that voters over age 65 tend to turn out in greater numbers in mid-term elections, which is why 2010 was such a disaster for Democrats and why the upcoming November 2014 election has Democrats so worried. Quite apart from their own race, it's well established in other public opinion data that younger cohorts of voters are more racially tolerant on a broad range of indicators, including racial intermarriage.

The Gallup report adds:

Race appears to be a significant factor in seniors' Republican realignment, because whites have become more solidly Republican in recent years, seniors are overwhelmingly white, and white seniors today are Republican-aligned, while white seniors in the past were Democratic-aligned.

The timing of the shift raises the possibility that it is motivated by recent events that have more closely linked race and political party than was the case in the past, including the mid-2000s debate over immigration, and the election and presidency of Barack Obama. Because seniors did not show an outright preference for the Republican Party until 2010, Obama's second year in office, it may not have been just Obama's race per se, but his policies and performance in office that has turned seniors 'red.'

To that list of policies and performance, we should add the Affordable Care Act. In fairness to seniors and their racial tolerance or lack thereof, it's likely that President Obama helped frighten away older voters with his ill-fated decision to pay for the Affordable Care Act mainly with unspecified future savings in Medicare -- a policy that made Obama a sitting duck for the Republican charge that he was favoring coverage for the uninsured (who are blacker and browner than the average voter) at the expense of Medicare.

So, what's the net net? Is the problem of relentless partisan animus in the Obama era one of lingering racism, or is it weak leadership on the president's part? On the evidence, I'd conclude that it's both. But in fairness to President Obama, in a nation where race never quite goes away, the first African American chief executive has even less margin for error than most.

Robert Kuttner's latest book is Debtors" Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School.

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