Obama, Clinton and Racism

Melissa Harris-Perry has an article in The Nation arguing that President Obama is being held to a different standard than Bill Clinton was because of white liberal racism. I think she’s wrong. Oh, I’m sure there may be some white liberals who do hold such a double standard, but I don’t see any compelling reason to believe that this explains why Obama is receiving so much criticism from the left. I think he’s receiving that criticism because he deserves it and that would be true if he was purple with pink polka dots. I also think she’s ignoring the historical record almost completely.

She begins by arguing that Obama’s career demonstrates the lack of overt electoral racism.

The 2008 general election was another referendum on old-fashioned electoral racism—this time among Democratic voters. The long primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Obama had the important effect of registering hundreds of thousands of Democrats. By October 2008, it was clear that Obama could lose the general election only if a substantial portion of registered Democrats in key states failed to turn out or chose to cross party lines. For Democrats to abandon their nominee after eight years of Bush could be interpreted only as an act of electoral racism.

Not only did white Democratic voters prove willing to support a black candidate; they overperformed in their repudiation of naked electoral racism, electing Obama with a higher percentage of white votes than either Kerry or Gore earned. No amount of birther backlash can diminish the importance of these two election results. We have not landed on the shores of postracial utopia, but we have solid empirical evidence of a profound and important shift in America’s electoral politics.

But then she goes on to argue that there is a more subtle form of racism at work among white liberals that operates by judging a black president on a different standard than a white president. And her evidence for this is an alleged difference in liberal reactions to Obama and Clinton in their first terms:

Still, electoral racism cannot be reduced solely to its most egregious, explicit form. It has proved more enduring and baffling than these results can capture. The 2012 election may be a test of another form of electoral racism: the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts. If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.

The relevant comparison here is with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Today many progressives complain that Obama’s healthcare reform was inadequate because it did not include a public option; but Clinton failed to pass any kind of meaningful healthcare reform whatsoever. Others argue that Obama has been slow to push for equal rights for gay Americans; but it was Clinton who established the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy Obama helped repeal. Still others are angry about appalling unemployment rates for black Americans; but while overall unemployment was lower under Clinton, black unemployment was double that of whites during his term, as it is now. And, of course, Clinton supported and signed welfare “reform,” cutting off America’s neediest despite the nation’s economic growth.

Today, America’s continuing entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan provoke anger, but while Clinton reduced defense spending, covert military operations were standard practice during his administration. In terms of criminal justice, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which decreased judicial disparities in punishment; by contrast, federal incarceration grew exponentially under Clinton. Many argue that Obama is an ineffective leader, but the legislative record for his first two years outpaces Clinton’s first two years. Both men came into power with a Democratically controlled Congress, but both saw a sharp decline in their ability to pass their own legislative agendas once GOP majorities took over one or both chambers…

In 1996 President Clinton was re-elected with a coalition more robust and a general election result more favorable than his first win. His vote share among women increased from 46 to 53 percent, among blacks from 83 to 84 percent, among independents from 38 to 42 percent, and among whites from 39 to 43 percent.

President Obama has experienced a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans—from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent now. I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected.

I think this is sanitizing history more than just a bit. Bill Clinton received enormous criticism from liberals, particularly after the 1994 midterm elections. It quickly became obvious after he took office that Clinton talked like a liberal but didn’t govern like one, much like Obama. And they both established a similar pattern of making very bold, principled pronouncements of what needed to change, delivering far less than promised and then declaring that they’d really made a serious change.

And the reason why Clinton’s percentages went up in his second election was because there was no serious third party challenge. In 1992, Ross Perot was in the race and got almost 20% of the votes and a huge amount of attention. In 1996, Perot was still on the ticket but only got 8%. The Republican candidate’s support also went up among all those groups from 1992 to 1996, so that is evidence of nothing at all.

I don’t know where she gets the idea that Clinton had enthusiastic support on the left. The unions hammered him for his support of GATT and NAFTA. Proponents of stronger regulation blasted him for his support of deregulating much of the financial industry. Progressive advocates were furious at him over welfare reform. On many of the major bills he signed, far more Republicans had voted for those bills than Democrats. He received serious criticism for it and a lot of liberals voted for him while holding their nose — as I’m sure a lot of liberals will do with Obama as well.

David Sirota responds to Harris-Perry:

There’s no doubt that modern racism does translate into White America as a whole often applying different standards to white and black public figures. (As just one example of that troubling dynamic, see this column I wrote during the 2008 election, noting that while Obama was hammered for his relationship with the black pastor Jeremiah Wright, the media ignored the fact that: A. “John McCain solicited the endorsement of John Hagee — the pastor who called the Catholic Church ‘a great whore,'” and B. Hillary Clinton both belongs to the “Fellowship” — a secretive group “dedicated to ‘spiritual war’ on behalf of Christ” — and is friendly with Billy Graham, the reverend caught on tape spewing anti-Semitism.)

However, just because double-standard racism exists, that doesn’t mean it’s the automatic, case-closed explanation for every political problem faced by African American public figures — especially politicians who are serving during recessions and who have made deliberate base-shattering decisions. Indeed, Harris-Perry’s attempt to invoke the very real phenomenon of racist double standards as a means of explaining away President Obama’s electoral troubles in 2012 willfully ignores a number of important facts.

First and foremost among these is the fact that President Clinton was not “enthusiastically re-elected,” as Harris-Perry well knows. When Clinton triangulated against his liberal base with NAFTA, welfare reform and “don’t ask, don’t tell” (among other issues), he faced just asvociferous liberal criticism as Obama does today, and in the very journals like The Nation for which Harris-Perry now writes.

As a result, America saw the opposite of “enthusiasm” in 1996 — that presidential election, in fact, saw unprecedentedly low turnout. Additionally, Clinton — after dissing his base — won a meager 49 percent of the vote in that election, despite running against one of the weakest, least charismatic Republican presidential nominees in recent memory. In short, just as many white liberals were dissatisfied with a white president for abandoning the Democratic Party’s base back in 1996, so too are many now dissatisfied with a black president for doing the same — or, in many cases, worse.

That “worse” part is another issue that goes unmentioned in Harris-Perry’s denialist screed. In many ways, President Obama’s triangulation against the Democratic base has been far more blatant and overt than even Bill Clinton’s was (though again: many progressives — including me — were and remain as consistently critical of the substance of the Clinton record as they’ve been of the Obama record). The key point is that Obama is a president who hasn’t merely tried but failed to achieve what he promised to achieve. He has deliberately and publicly worked to do the opposite of what he promised on key issues.

This is a president who as a candidate railed on adventurist wars and promised to seek congressional authorization for new wars — and then turned around and initiated new adventurist wars without congressional authorization.

Obama is also a man who criticized Bush-era civil liberties policies as a candidate and then as president not only extended those policies — but, in many cases, actually made them worse. Among other things, he has pressed for longer Patriot Act extensions than congressional Republicansadded bipartisan legitimacy to warrantless wiretapping (which he explicitly promised to end) and claimed autocratic powers that even the extremist Bush administration never dared to claim (for example, the power to assassinate American citizens without charge).

Quite so. Obama is receiving all that criticism from the left because he deserves it, because time and time again he hasn’t just failed to achieve what he said he would, he has actively done the exact opposite. Clinton did the same thing, of course. And he rightly got criticized for it too.

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