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Obama, and the trouble with race as an element of the campaign. March 21, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Not a great week for Obama to judge from the latest polling data. According to Gallup Clinton has moved into a ‘significant’ lead over Obama.

The March 14-18 national survey of 1,209 Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters gave Clinton, a New York senator, a 49 percent to 42 percent edge over Obama, an Illinois senator. The poll has an error margin of 3 percentage points.

And on the national?

Gallup said polling data also showed McCain leading Obama 47 percent to 43 percent in 4,367 registered voters’ preferences for the general election. The general election survey has an error margin of 2 percentage points.

The Arizona senator also edged Clinton 48 percent to 45 percent but Gallup said the lead was not statistically significant.

Now all of this comes with major caveats. There is no election until much later in the year, and plenty of runway between now and then. Other polls show Clinton or Obama in the lead, as with the CBS and CNN polls from earlier in the week. So the major concern that the Republicans are in a stronger position than the Democrats is as yet unrealised. Still, is a tough campaign of the sort we’re experiencing good or bad for the nominees when they finally meet McCain. At least they’ll be tested one might suggest.

And yet, not an awful week either. Bill Richardson is said to have endorsed Obama according to reuters.com. Good for Obama because as noted by reuters:

Richardson’s endorsement has been fiercely sought by both Obama and his rival Sen. Hillary Clinton in part because as a Hispanic he is seen as influential within the Latino community, which could be a key voting bloc in the November presidential election.

Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, largely backed Clinton in nominating contests on “Super Tuesday,” with exit polls showing her winning two-thirds of the Latino vote in several states.

Meanwhile there is the bizarre, but not entirely unexpected story about how contract workers (yeah, sure) at the State Department ‘improperly’ looked at Obama’s passport records three times.

The State Department said its initial assessment was that three workers in separate offices looked at the records out of “imprudent curiosity” rather than any political motivation but that it had requested an investigation into the matter.

The incidents, which occurred on January 9, February 21 and March 14, were quickly reported to lower-level State Department officials but only came to the notice of its senior management when a reporter e-mailed spokesman Sean McCormack on Thursday.

Two of the three contract workers were fired as soon as the unauthorized viewing of Obama’s files was discovered, while the third has been disciplined but still works for a contractor who has business with the State Department.

That they were in a position to do so is disquieting. That these are regarded as firing offences is not so much. Problem is it seems to me – from the Obama campaign point of view – it plays into a narrative that seems to be developing of Obama as ‘other’.

Forcing him back onto the terrain of ‘race’ where the more lofty rhetoric warps in the face of embedded prejudices and fears has left him a more defensive figure than previously. Still, I can’t help but feel that it was inevitable. At some point or another either with a rival Democratic candidate or with McCain this would have to be dealt with. His “A More Perfect Union” speech of the 18th of March may have gone some way to assisting in that endeavour.

For someone who is more than comfortable with rhetoric it was pretty direct. And it’s admirable to see a candidate who understand the difference between disagreeing with and disowning another.

I can no more disown him [Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe

The cynic in me wonders if we’re looking at a near Clintonesque example of triangulation. Still. Maybe not.

On the other hand the controversy over Reverend Wright and his comments has been enormously problematic. That some leading Republicans have had no great problem embracing and being embraced by pastors and religious figures with often scarifying socio-political programmes and pronouncements is of little comfort in the immediate hurly burly of a campaign. And for those of us who tot up such things consider this on Salon which makes some pertinent comparisons between others who have been intemperate or worse in their language and their relationship and acceptance by Republican candidates. Or indeed – and let me indulge in a carnival of whataboutery here – this? Certainly if this becomes the defining aspect of the Obama campaign it will be difficult not to regard it as a submerged racial attack of sorts.

How this debate is impacting on the polls for better or worse is an important, but so far unanswerable, question. The Gallup poll couldn’t register an – if any – effect. A Rasmussen poll held on 16-19th of March had Obama and Clinton on 42% and 41% respectively but with McCain on 49% and 51% to the other two. The trend is evident. Obama continues to slide. Clinton continues to consolidate and McCain is there or thereabouts. Do speeches staunch political wounds?
We’ll see.

Comments»

1. CL - March 21, 2008

No doubt its been a rough period for Obama, but he’s withstood the Clinton ‘kitchen sink’ attack, and he hasn’t buckled under the rabid assault from the right. Obama has shown grace under pressure. Its a little early to say what the full effects of ‘the speech’ will be but it should have consolidated support among super delegates. The Richardson endorsement follows directly from the speech.
If you look at some of the figures and graphs on RealClearPolitics there’s not that much slippage in Obama’s support.
Obama could lose Pennsylvania by 20 percentage points and if he breaks even in what primaries are left, he would finish the primary season ahead by about 130 in pledged delegates.
The decision not to redo Florida and Michigan also hurts Clinton.
Right now Obama needs less than 400 delegates overall to clinch the nomination, Clinton needs more than 500.
But its doubtful if the speech will help Obama much with the white working class: that demographic previously known as ‘Reagan Democrats’, although he acknowledged the reality and legitimacy of their resentments. As Maureen Dowd put it:

“He was spot-on about my tribe of working-class Irish, the ones who have helped break his winning streak in New Hampshire and Ohio, and may do so in Pennsylvania.”
The only hope for Clinton is to win the popular vote overall and use this as leverage with the superdelegates. This too is unlikely. And Clinton’s argument that losing a state in a primary means a loss of that state in the general is fatuous.
One would hope that Obama would develop an economic message that would appeal to, and connect him with, working class voters of all hues. So far he has not.
Racism was a key element in neoliberalism’s triumph: we shall see if it will prevent its rollback.

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2. WorldbyStorm - March 21, 2008

Thanks for that… I sort of agree with Dowd… I think.

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3. Eagle - March 21, 2008

I really don’t think Obama can win the general election given all this. I don’t think it’s right to compare occasional chats with Pat Robertson with a two-decade-long, close, almost family-like relationship with a guy who continually disparages the United States in extreme terms and whose brand of Christianity is at a great remove from mainstream Protestantism. I actually think Obama’s attempts to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright’s politics will only work temporarily before the theology of his church starts getting attention. That will be more difficult for him to explain.

I know there are a lot of people who might agree with such assessments outside America, but I can’t see him winning 50% of the vote in November. Anything’s possible, but it’s a massive negative for him to deal with.

The perception of Obama as a post-racial candidate is going to be slowly obliterated as this stuff oozes into the minds of the voters. {And, for the most part this stuff has not been in the mainstream media in America yet.} Until this past week, I thought the Republicans would find it hard to push the racial buttons, but now all they’ll have to do is replay J. Wright’s sermons over and over again. Obama’s best hope is that this will offend McCain’s sense of decency to such an extent that he puts a stop to it.

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4. Eagle - March 21, 2008

And, I don’t much like the way he compared the stuff Jeremiah Wright had to say with the much less charged remarks of G. Ferrarro or that he felt comfortable throwing his grandmother under a bus. I wonder how she feels now. That was uncalled for.

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5. CL - March 21, 2008

Obama is moving in the right direction on economic issues. Yesterday, in W.Virginia he said:
“we could be fighting to put the American dream within reach for every American – by giving tax breaks to working families, offering relief to struggling homeowners, reversing President Bush’s cuts to the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, and protecting Social Security today, tomorrow, and forever. That’s what we could be doing instead of fighting this war.

Instead of fighting this war, we could be fighting to make universal health care a reality in this country. We could be fighting for the young woman who works the night shift after a full day of college and still can’t afford medicine for a sister who’s ill. For what we spend in several months in Iraq, we could be providing them with the quality, affordable health care that every American deserves.”

In The Speech he said:
“Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.”

To transcend race, Obama needs to wage some class warfare. But he seems somewhat naive about economics: especially when one considers that his main economic adviser, Austan ‘Nafta-gate’ Goolsbee, is an admirer of the ideology of Milton Friedman.
Yet there are times when circumstances have a compelling force of their own…

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6. WorldbyStorm - March 21, 2008

Hasn’t his grandmother departed the scene? I’m not sure about that being so awful, or indeed whether Wright (who seems a highly strung guy in his own way) is quite as awful as being presented or is that different to individuals asked to the White House, but I suspect you’re right on the broader reception Eagle. CL, that’s a very good point as regards his being naive. Mick Hall has made some interesting points on that very issue over on Organized Rage…

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7. Eagle - March 22, 2008

WBS,

As far as I know, Obama’s grandmother is very much alive. I’m pretty sure I read that both of his grandmothers are alive.

If she wasn’t warned about the speech in advance that this was one of the most cold-blooded abuses of a loved one ever executed in American politics.

I don’t know if Wright is “awful” at all, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s made speeches that contain enough material for months’ worth of campaign ads. Wright’s black liberation theology will be explored and will eventually lead to Obama having to answer all sorts of religious questions. I can’t see how he can avoid this.

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8. WorldbyStorm - March 22, 2008

Ouch! You’re right, she’s still with us… that’s not so great. I’d hope she was told about it in advance, or agreed to it.

The odd thing about all this is that the Obama campaign just don’t seem to have seen it coming or had a clear strategy to deal with it.

Their hope must be that he can somehow be seen to transcend all this, sort of like pointing at it and saying ‘this is what we were but while I understand it I don’t buy it and you don’t have to either’. A big sell, as the phrase goes.

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9. PamDirac - March 22, 2008

***I don’t know if Wright is “awful” at all, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s made speeches that contain enough material for months’ worth of campaign ads.***

I’ll say. On the other hand, the GOP still has a candidate disliked by much of his own party and chained to an unpopular president, a collapsing economy, and an impossible war on their hands. I still think the election is the Democrats’ to lose no matter who they nominate, which doesn’t mean they won’t manage it.

I think too much was made of it, but yes, it was raw of Obama to compare Grandma with a preacher spewing hate speech from the pulpit. I don’t imagine it went over too well with the older white women who were paying attention, either.

It has not been a good week for Obama, but within the party his position is strong. He has a ton of money and reports are breaking that Clinton is in the red. I don’t think much of Richardson or his endorsement (and I’m not sure how much Hispanics will care about it) but it was well timed.

Obama’s fogginess on matters economic may not hurt him if he gets the nomination, considering his opponent is McCain. Now, if Romney were the GOP candidate…..but fortunately for Obama, he’s not.

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10. CL - March 22, 2008

Obama disowned neither his grandmother nor Rev. Wright, yet those who are shouting most vociferously that he did not repudiate Wright are claiming that he ‘threw his grandmother under the bus’. Peculiar.

But the more general question is whether The Speech hinders or helps his bid for the Presidency.
All thinking people will agree with the Speech: unfortunately he needs a majority to win. (Adlai Stevenson said something like this in his contest with Eisenhower)

An interesting piece here from a thinker in the Financial Times:
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/ab26ee84-f762-11dc-ac40-000077b07658.html?nclick_check=1

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11. Eagle - March 22, 2008

I think too much was made of it, but yes, it was raw of Obama to compare Grandma with a preacher spewing hate speech from the pulpit. I don’t imagine it went over too well with the older white women who were paying attention, either.

Exactly Pam. This message is going to be HAMMERED home come the fall. Older women are Hillary’s strongest bloc of voters, but I actually think that Obama has lost them in a big way with his grandma reference.

You’re definitely right about McCain’s problems, but despite all of those I think Obama has given way too many hostages to fortune here.

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12. Eagle - March 22, 2008

Oh, and Pam, the Ferrarro reference works much the same was as the grandma reference. Why should women Ferrarro’s age vote for Obama when he compares her to Wright?

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13. Eagle - March 22, 2008

I can’t help thinking that the Republicans now really, really want Obama to be the nominee. I even suspect the recent State Dept. revelations regarding Obama’s passport application were an attempt to give him some support. You know, ‘look how they’re attacking him’. I would wager that such violations are generally trivial and were actually mindless stupidity than anything political, but the big announcement provides a reason for the Democratic activists to rally to Obama.

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14. ejh - March 22, 2008

I don’t think it’s right to compare occasional chats with Pat Robertson with a two-decade-long, close, almost family-like relationship with a guy who continually disparages the United States in extreme terms and whose brand of Christianity is at a great remove from mainstream Protestantism.

And of course Republican candidates will all be rushing to disassociate themselves from talk-radio hosts and the like, won’t they?

It’s just the usual racial and political hypocrisy in favour of the white and the Right.

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15. CL - March 22, 2008

“I even suspect the recent State Dept. revelations regarding Obama’s passport application were an attempt to give him some support.” (Eagle, above)
And we thought Rev. Wright was conspiratorial! They’ve also snooped into Hillary’s and McCain’s files so maybe they’re secretly backing Nader.
Despite the arithmetic being in Obama’s favour he still does not have the nomination locked up. Who knows maybe Limbaugh’s irrational ranting will play well in Scranton and Pittsburg. Obama could withstand a blow-out in Pennsylvania but what if he loses in N.Carolina where the polls are tightening? And with this momentum Hillary wins the remaining primaries, and the superdelegates worried about endless ‘God damn America’ ads, give her the nomination. Course at that point the Dems lose the youth and black vote and we have 4 more years of Bush/McCain, and a seriously disaffected large segment of the population.

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16. EWI - March 23, 2008

Obama’s best hope is that this will offend McCain’s sense of decency to such an extent that he puts a stop to it.

Heh. This would be the same John McCain who recently courted the Rev. Hagee, right?

Let’s take a gander at the Rev. Hagee’s views:

Hurricane Katrina – “I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they were recipients of the judgment of God for that.”

The Catholic Church – “Adolf Hitler attended a Catholic school as a child and heard all the fiery anti-Semitic rantings from Chrysostom to Martin Luther. When Hitler became a global demonic monster, the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII never, ever slightly criticized him. Pope Pius XII, called by historians ‘Hitler’s Pope,’ joined Hitler in the infamous Concordat of Collaboration, which turned the youth of the [sic] Germany over to Nazism, and the churches became the stage background for the bloodthirsty cry, ‘Pereat Judea'[19]…. In all of his [Hitler’s] years of absolute brutality, he was never denounced or even scolded by Pope Pius XII or any Catholic leader in the world. To those Christians who believe that Jewish hearts will be warmed by the sight of the cross, please be informed—to them it’s an electric chair. […]
The Roman Catholic Church, which was supposed to carry the light of the gospel, plunged the world into the Dark Ages…. The Crusaders were a motley mob of thieves, rapists, robbers, and murderers whose sins had been forgiven by the pope in advance of the Crusade…. The brutal truth is that the Crusades were military campaigns of the Roman Catholic Church to gain control of Jerusalem from the Muslims and to punish the Jews as the alleged Christ killers on the road to and from Jerusalem.”

On anti-Semistism – “It was the disobedience and rebellion of the Jews, God’s chosen people, to their covenantal responsibility to serve only the one true God, Jehovah, that gave rise to the opposition and persecution that they experienced beginning in Canaan and continuing to this very day… Their own rebellion had birthed the seed of anti-Semitism that would arise and bring destruction to them for centuries to come…. it rises from the judgment of God upon his rebellious chosen people.”

Now, since John McCain is unlikely to appear with a bang and a flash in these comments to repudiate these sentiments of someone whose backing he has actively courted, I’d settle for, say, Eagle giving us an explanation of why Wright is The End Of Obama! and Hagee gets an ‘eh’ from the same excitable folks.

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17. Eagle - March 24, 2008

Now, since John McCain is unlikely to appear with a bang and a flash in these comments to repudiate these sentiments of someone whose backing he has actively courted, I’d settle for, say, Eagle giving us an explanation of why Wright is The End Of Obama! and Hagee gets an ‘eh’ from the same excitable folks.

Because McCain doesn’t have a decades-long, close relationship with Hagee.

Because Catholics are much more powerful and confident and able to laugh off such idiocy than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Catholic voters will not abandon McCain because of this any more than they abandoned Bush over his Bob Jones University relationship.

Because Wright’s comments are more problematic for the political midstream voters than are Hagee’s. Anti-Catholicism is much less of a political problem than racially charged remarks.

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18. Eagle - March 24, 2008

And of course Republican candidates will all be rushing to disassociate themselves from talk-radio hosts and the like, won’t they?

I don’t know about “Republican candidates”, but McCain has and will.

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19. Eagle - March 24, 2008

And we thought Rev. Wright was conspiratorial! They’ve also snooped into Hillary’s and McCain’s files so maybe they’re secretly backing Nader.

That’s my point. This was trivial nonsense, but instead you have C. Rice making televised apologies. Why?

And, CL, if Hillary actually wins the nomination fairly (as opposed to turning delegates at the convention) I think she’ll sweep to a fairly strong win in November. The youth vote’s not worth much (they rarely vote in big numbers anyway) and she’ll have (a) the wind at her back, (b) a weak Republican candidate, (c) an economy heading towards the tank and (d) a lot more money than McCain.

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20. EWI - March 24, 2008

Because Wright’s comments are more problematic for the political midstream voters than are Hagee’s. Anti-Catholicism is much less of a political problem than racially charged remarks.

I’d like your explicit reasoning on why this is, if you wouldn’t mind. I don’t think that “oh, Catholics can brush it off” is any kind of answer.

Can’t WASPs just suck it up, that a black minister who lived through the civil rights struggle has a less than stellar opinion of them?

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21. PamDirac - March 25, 2008

I think McCain should have gotten more grief about Hagee than he’s received, but it’s true that anti-Catholicism is not as fraught an issue in the U.S. as it used to be. Catholics inclined to support McCain in the first place may look at his stance on other issues and decide to give him a pass on Hagee, if they dislike the alternative sufficiently. Hagee is not a deal breaker. Wright might be, if Obama wins the nomination and the story comes back to haunt him.

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