After an historic victory in the 2008 general election, Barack Obama assumed the presidency with remarkably high approval ratings and momentum to change the course of the nation. After eight years of the disastrous policies of Bush-Cheney, ostensibly Americans were ready for a more people-centered, just and humane policy agenda. However, eight months into his tenure in the White House, President Obama has experienced the most precipitous decline in approval ratings of any President since Gerald Ford. Increasingly he looks like an embattled President. Given the horrific mess he inherited from Bush-Cheney, there was bound to be a drop in Obama’s poll numbers at some point. In this instance, however, there are some other factors at play that warrant examination.
Faced with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Republicans have shown no inclination to accommodate President Obama’s agenda for change. Despite his commitment to bi-partisanship and gestures to demonstrate his sincerity, from the outset Republicans decided that it was in their best interest politically if President Obama fails. Rush Limbaugh said as much on his nationally syndicated radio talk show. John McCain campaigned on the “patriotic” slogan “Country First,” but Republicans appear to view regaining power as more important than cooperating with the President to pull the nation out of the economic morass their policies created.
President Obama made overtures to Republicans as the Economic Stimulus Plan was being crafted. As a concession to them, the final version was smaller than originally envisioned and included billions of dollars in tax cuts (which most economists contend provide very little stimulus). It was a wasted exercise in “bi-partisanship.” In a calculated move, not a single Republican in the House of Representatives voted for the bill and only three moderates signed on in the Senate. President Obama met a similar wall of opposition to Judge Sonia Sotomayor, his nominee to the Supreme Court. Though the Republicans tread more gingerly for fear of permanently alienating the Latino vote, they nonetheless used the confirmation process to paint Ms. Sotomayor as a judicial activist to play to their base in hopes of derailing her nomination. Opposition to the Stimulus Plan and the nomination of Judge Sotomayor were picnics compared to the ferocious resistance to health care reform that has been generated by the Republicans. Their true intent was revealed by Congressman Jim DeMint of South Carolina who openly called for Republicans to oppose health care reform so that its failure would be President Obama’s political “Waterloo.” The Republicans have become the Grand Obstructionist Party (G.O.P.)
Opposition to Obama’s policies would not be so fervent in my judgment without a combustible cauldron of ignorance, White rage and latent racism – all of which make a sizeable segment of the American electorate susceptible to the machinations of Republicans. Despite the fact that Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Administration Hospital systems are successful “government administered” health care programs that benefit millions of Americans, there are legions of people who express a fear of government getting too involved in health care. Seldom is this fear expressed about insurance and pharmaceutical companies who make out like bandits in a system that places a premium on maximizing profits over dispensing quality health care. The fear of a Canadian, British or French style health care system is also fed by an almost total ignorance of how these systems perform. There may well be legitimate concerns about health care systems in other countries, but the fears of most Americans are based on ignorance and vulnerability to propaganda including, the “socialist” bogey man scare. Ignorance is not “bliss.” It is a prescription for retarding public policy in a democracy.
We have also seen a great deal of “White rage” in the recent town hall meetings on health care reform. Clearly orchestrated by opponents of the President, the outrage in some of these meetings has exposed a virulent and dangerous anti-government sentiment by fringe elements on the right. This is reminiscent of some of the hate groups and militias that gained notoriety in the final decades of the 20th century. This white rage is not only anti-government, much of it also racist. It is no mere coincidence that the number of militias and white hate groups proliferated as it became clear that Barack Obama had a legitimate chance to be the first Black President of the United States.
Though President Obama garnered more white votes than any Democratic candidate did since Jimmy Carter, there is still a stubborn minority in white America that simply can’t stand the idea of a Black family occupying the White House. How else does one explain the furor among White parents who vehemently objected to the idea of President Obama delivering a message on the first day of school encouraging students to do their best in the classroom? When President George H.W. Bush delivered a similar message in 1991, there was hardly a whisper of opposition. It’s noteworthy that the cameras have not shown any parents of color opposing the President’s address. It is not the message that white conservative parents object to; it’s the complexion of the messenger.
I cite these sources of opposition not to cause despair about the prospects for Barack Obama’s presidency, but as factors, the liberal-left-progressive movement must take into account to maximize the potential of this moment in history. The question becomes how do we educate, mobilize/organize to overcome the ignorance, white rage and latent racism that conservatives exploit to thwart efforts to enact an agenda for change? While we contemplate how to build a viable progressive majority for far ranging change, we may have to settle for incremental victories to frustrate the conservatives’ efforts to render Obama’s presidency a failure. In that regard, “the perfect must not be the enemy of the good.” Lest we forget, a “failed” Obama presidency could open the door to the return to power of the rabid conservatives. That would be another disaster!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.