Don Robinson: The party Obama can’t attend

Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2014

ASHFIELD — Why, despite his substantial achievements and exemplary personal character, has President Obama become such a toxic presence for Democrats as they approach the mid-term elections?

Among the many roles that a president plays, he is the leader of his party. Period. For better or worse, he stands before the nation as the person principally responsible for his party’s record.

His approval in the Gallup polls stands at 41 percent, and his policies have aroused ire in parts of the country. West Virginia used to be a Democratic stronghold. Now the Democrat running to replace retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller is given no chance. Why? West Virginians mine coal. They cannot forgive a president who is determined to regulate coal-fired power plants out of existence. To govern is to choose. On this one, Obama has made his choice.

But do Democrats have to tremble whenever Republicans blast his foreign policy or health care reforms? These are central elements in the record of the party whose label they bear, and this record can be defended.

It is always easier in politics to attack than to defend. To defend requires understanding, and in foreign policy and health care, particularly, understanding is not easy. But to allow the bullies to prevail without a fight is cowardly, and it is not a winning strategy.

On foreign policy, for example, the Financial Times reported that Obama “finds himself being encouraged to take direct military action against the Assad regime, to make plans for nation-building in Syria and to involve US troops in combat operations in Iraq.” He has shown laudable restraint in the face of these pressures.

Another favorite target of Republican critics is Obama’s record on the economy. People like Mitt Romney find too many people out of work and deficits too high. But these Republican talking points ignore important developments. The unemployment rate in the U.S., now under 6 percent, is the best it has been since the summer of 2008. The deficit is now about 3 percent of GNP, a sustainable level. If the Wall Street Journal (its news columns, not its editorial page) finds these numbers impressive, why do Democratic candidates try to hide from the politicians on whose watch they were achieved?

Reporters who take soundings around the country tell us that folks at the grassroots are still deeply concerned about the economy. Part of the reason for this disconnect between fact and feeling is that Democratic candidates have allowed Republican critics to define these issues. They have not invited the president into their districts and states to campaign for them. They have asked him not venture out of the White House.

Someone once said that the difference between the two major parties is that the Republicans are a large group/bunch of second-class aristocrats led by a small group of first-class hoodlums, whereas the Democrats are a large group of second-class hoodlums led by a small group of first-class aristocrats.

Barack Obama, despite his race and modest start in life, is a genuine aristocrat. Why do so many voters disapprove of him? Is it because of his race? Or because he went to Harvard? Or is it some combination of those factors?

No serious person can deny that race plays a part here. There are still many people in this country who resent an uppity black man. But I think social class is a crucial factor, too. Some people find him aloof, lacking passion and patriotism.

The aphorism about hoodlums and aristocrats was coined when FDR was president. He was a Harvard graduate. He talked like one and lived like one. But his struggle with polio immunized him from class resentment.

He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he knew what it was to struggle. JFK, another Harvard guy, had a different defense. When he got into a political fight, Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, were right there at his side. There were a lot of them, and by the time JFK came along, they knew the political ropes.

Obama’s most dependable political allies are people of color. They love him, and they vote for him in overwhelming numbers. But will they vote in an off-year election in sufficient numbers?

The answer to that question may well determine the outcome of the race for control of the U.S. Senate.

The chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Marcia Fudge, of Ohio, is blunt. “Anybody who looks at the data realizes that if the black vote and the brown vote doesn’t turn out, we can’t win,” she said. “It’s just that simple.” How do you get blacks and Latinos to vote?

The New York Times on Sunday put it this way: to keep Republicans from taking control of the Senate, Democrats need black voters. “Yet the one politician guaranteed to generate enthusiasm among African Americans is the same one many Democratic candidates want to avoid: Mr. Obama.”

There it is: race once again at the center of American politics. Blacks love him; many whites, not so much.

The course of the republic depends on whether black voters hear the call, despite various efforts to muffle it.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at


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