Read this: Melissa Harris Perry asks, is there a liberal racial double-standard for presidents?

Does Barack Obama have a "white liberal problem?"

In her latest essay for The Nation, Melissa Harris Perry writes about what she calls the two very different standards that white liberals seem to hold presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton to.

A clip:

… 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.

These comparisons are neither an attack on the Clinton administration nor an apology for the Obama administration. They are comparisons of two centrist Democratic presidents who faced hostile Republican majorities in the second half of their first terms, forcing a number of political compromises. One president is white. The other is black.

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. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.

Read the whole thing here.

It’s an important question to consider. White liberals (or more pointedly, liberal libertarians) have been excoriating President Obama almost since the beginning of his term, often ignoring Congress’ role in killing such policy preferences as closing Gitmo or trying KSM in the U.S. On this blog, we get the familiar “well Obama should have anticipated a recalcitrant Senate and a hostile GOP and adjusted his strategy accordingly” argument, as if anyone — including them (hello, BMull…) anticipated that Republicans would essentially wage all-out legislative war on Obama’s presidency.

Despite an actually pretty robust record of legislative successes, the Glenn Greenwalds, Jane Hamshers, Adam Greens and David Sirotas of the world, not to mention the Dan Chois (what is he chaining himself to these days, by the way…?) and what Obama’s original press team derided as the “professional left” — columnists like Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, etc, are rarely much below apoplectic rage and disappointment and just plain dissatisfaction when it comes to this president. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repealed? Not good enough. Choi is still pissed off, and wants Obama to apologize for every past president’s every failure to sufficiently big up gay troops. Healthcare reform? Not good enough. No public option. Iraq war drawdown? Not fast enough. Equal pay law signed? What’s that? Never heard of it and who is Lily Ledbetter, some damned Obama-lover Obamabot??? Unemployment benefits extended? Bush tax cuts extended too, so who cares. Let the unemployed march on Wall Street … Naked!! START treaty? Well why didn’t he destroy ALL American nukes? Huh? Not good enough! Killed Osama bin Laden? REDRUM!!!! You get the idea.

President Obama has faced about as hostile a left wing as I’ve seen, and I’ve been a political junkie my whole life. And I can tell you from conversations with black Democrats there are more than a few who believe that Obama is being held to an impossibly high standard — jump higher, run faster, black man,  just to be considered just as good, by the liberal “elite.” Don’t shoot the messenger, people. That’s the sentiment I hear, over and over and over again.

Meanwhile, Sirota responded to Perry’s piece in rather typical fashion, taking a personal Twitter swipe at her by linking to a writeup (by /black/ Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart) of polls showing dampened African-American poll numbers for the president and wondering if Perry will now call those black people racist too. (Sirota once likened Obama supporters to the KKK, but he has also called conservative opposition to the president akin to a “racist lynch mob.” He’s a little bit all over the place… hat tip to @rkref for the flashback re the KKK stuff…)

Then there’s the mini-”purge” of pro-Obama posters at DKos, which Kos explained to me was a relatively small lockout, resulting from people getting ugly with one another, including some black (ostensibly) posters flinging around charges of racism against anti-Obama posters.

And if you’re on the Twitters, you’ve witnessed the sometimes ugly battles between black Obama supporters (and white ones) and pretty much anybody from or ThinkProgress.

Shorter version: there is serious tension between black Obama Democrats and a very vocal group of mainly white (plus Smiley and West), anti-Obama liberals.

It’s a breech worth exploring, because I suspect it goes deeper, and probably reaches back further, than this president (think Proposition 8 in California) to some serious ideological and racial differences that have yet to surface in a big way before now. Black people and liberals don’t always dovetail, issue-wise, and those tensions tend to get muted by electoral politics, because both groups tend to vote for Democrats.

These issues don’t get explored much, but they should.

This entry was posted in 2012, People, Politics, President Barack Obama and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Read this: Melissa Harris Perry asks, is there a liberal racial double-standard for presidents?

  1. rikyrah says:

    you rock.

    Harris-Perry is on point too.

  2. REAL BROTHER says:

    Real Brother here.

    Both these Sista’s are wrong. White Progressives haven’t set an arbitrary HIGH standard for a Black President no its an extremely LOW standard and their ire is PBO exceeded their lame Racist stereotypes and that has called into question the MYTH that Whites are Superior. That’s why they now want to abandon him.


  3. Allan says:

    Damn, Joy, remind me never to get on your bad side! Thank you so much for this.

  4. Like you, I’ve been a political junkie all my life and have also been struck by the vitriol toward President Obama from some on the left. I was naive enough to think racism was almost entirely a Republican problem before the 2008 Democratic primary exposed a shocking (to me) amount of racial animus on the part of some on the Dem side, namely the PUMA faction. (We chronicled it extensively at my home blog during the primaries and general election.)

    I say we’re well rid of the overt racists who abandoned the Democrats because Barack Obama prevailed over Hillary Clinton, just as the departure of the Dixiecrats to the GOP improved the focus and overall health of the Democratic Party a generation or two before. And luckily, the PUMAs and their fellow travelers were a small enough subset that their departure didn’t exact a heavy electoral cost.

    But here’s where I see the racial dimension coming into play among white liberals (of which I am one), and it involves a lame racial stereotype, though perhaps a different one than that alluded to by Real Brother above: Some white liberals assumed that a black president would be their angry black avenger, elevating them (white liberals) and rubbing their conservative opponents’ faces in the dirt.

    Racist cretin Rush Limbaugh was fond of playing a racist ditty entitled “Barack the Magic Negro” on his radio program during the 2008 election, and while the sentiment it expressed was offensive and unfair to most white Democrats who support the president, it contained a kernel of truth about some, who apparently thought Mr. Obama’s election would usher in an era of ponies for all.

    Of course, anyone who bothered to read the “Audacity of Hope,” peruse Mr. Obama’s political platform or hear his views on bipartisanship and compromise prior to the election should not be surprised at how he has governed. And a fair assessment of his accomplishments in office — with more sugar plums for liberals in two years than President Clinton delivered in eight — should mollify any lefty who is realistic about this wildly polarized country.

    But Harris-Perry is right: There is a higher standard for President Obama. Bill Clinton didn’t have to deal with the giant web-based echo chamber we have today, nor was he sandbagged with a global economic crash. But I don’t doubt for a moment that a racial dimension comes into play as well.

  5. Andrew says:

    Well. Finally. Something constructive. I have been very disappointed in the language used by the pro-Obama Left against the “anti”-Obama Left : “Magical Thinking” “F*#king Retards” “Professional Whiners” – which silences criticism, distracts from the substance of the allegations and de-legitimizes the dissenters. Although Professor Perry does allege racism (Really?…Really??) the truth of her argument is unavoidable.

    What we have here is a President that OF COURSE is held to a higher standard because he simultaneously embodies the highest ideals for Blacks, White Libs, Dems etc.. and the stark reality for Tea Baggers, Republicans, White Cons, etc.. So the reality of who he is and what he believes , which of course would dictate how he would govern, would be at odds with the fantasies of what White libs and some Black activists would want him to be and how they would like him to govern. (and what some would say is needed)

    The comparisons to Clinton are off. Clinton was elected to be President. No one cried the night Bill clinton was elected. I think the expectations were insane but most people on the Left elected Obama to be the head of a Movement that would smash the Philistines, restore the land and hand them the keys to the Republic so that they could finally deliver on their promises to their slice of the democratic coalition. This creates huge problems when the President, especially as the head of the Democratic Party, has never been a Liberal and is not a Liberal but was elected by Progressives to be the leader of a Progressive Restoration.

    Although I disagree with Joy’s defense of the President that borders on professional apologizing at times, I must agree with her that there is something deeper going on here. The debate has been vitriolic at times because this is an argument over the soul of the Democratic Party – How we define liberalism – Does electoral politics serve us or do we serve it – Should we hold our leaders accountable or is just getting them elected, in itself, enough. We must also decide if dissent in the face of a racist opposition that despises our very existence constitutes a form of treason.Also Joy is spot on when she says that the debate over Obama’s leadership is a twisted proxy of the arguments and fault lines between members of the Democartic Family.

    As it applies to the President can the Left understand that just because he and other Democrats sometimes use the hatred and insanity of the Republicans as an excuse not to deliver, does not mean that they are not Crazy and mean us and the republic harm if elected (see West over Klein).

    What I know is that I am tired of this debate. I believe it is time to shelve it until after the elections. President Obama is not a liberal. He will continue to be at odds with his base because he is to their right. This no longer matters because , in order to aid his re-elect, he will now start sounding like the Progressive Champion of 2007 – 2008 and most importantly anything that diverts resources from his re-election would be disastrous. Once we have re-elected our President then we can resume the battle over membership in and definition of the Democratic Family.

    I cannot end withough giving a shout out to Betty Cracker, Your comment is dead on and well said.

  6. hilda banks says:

    Melissa, you are my girl. Why can’t people be more honest with themselves. They thought by electing President Obama this would prove they weren’t racist but if he doesn’t move to our tune we will castrate him. The hurdles this man has had to jump just to prove that he is as good if not better than the previous 43 Presidents. Yes, Bill Clinton was not a liberal or a progressive. Examples were given of his presidency yet, blacks overwhelmingly supported him. Oh, I forgot, President Obama is our second black president, Bill was our first. Sure, the President has been held to a much higher standard. Liberal Dems are just as bad if not worse than Republicans because you already know what their agenda is but I am so surprised at these folks. I almost stopped going to DailyKos because of some of the comments against the President. Yes, Hamsher and gang are crazy over the top fools. The President gets no credit for any thing that he has done just relentless criticism. Maybe one day someone will say, “GOOD JOB”, President Obama. Let me be the first, “GOOD JOB”, President Obama.

  7. jacksmith says:


    ( )

    ( Gov. Peter Shumlin: Real Healthcare reform — )

    ( Health Care Budget Deficit Calculator — )

    ( Briefing: Dean Baker on Boosting the Economy by Saving Healthcare )


    As you all know. Had congress passed a single-payer or government-run robust Public Option CHOICE! available to everyone on day one, our economy and jobs would have taken off like a rocket. And still will. Single-payer would be best. But a government-run robust Public Option CHOICE! that can lead to a single-payer system is the least you can accept. It’s not about competing with for-profit healthcare and for-profit health insurance. It’s about replacing it with Universal Healthcare Assurance. Everyone knows this now.

    The message from the midterm elections was clear. The American people want real healthcare reform. They want that individual mandate requiring them to buy private health insurance abolished. And they want a government-run robust public option CHOICE! available to everyone on day one. And they want it now.

    They want Drug re-importation, and abolishment, or strong restrictions on patents for biologic and prescription drugs. And government controlled and negotiated drug and medical cost. They want back control of their healthcare system from the Medical Industrial Complex. And they want it NOW!


    For-profit health insurance is extremely unethical, and morally repugnant. It’s as morally repugnant as slavery was. And few if any decent Americans are going to allow them-self to be compelled to support such an unethical and immoral crime against humanity.

    This is a matter of National and Global security. There can be NO MORE EXCUSES.

    Further, we want that corrupt, undemocratic filibuster abolished. Whats the point of an election if one corrupt member of congress can block the will of the people, and any legislation the majority wants. And do it in secret. Give me a break people.

    Also, unemployment healthcare benefits are critically needed. But they should be provided through the Medicare program at cost, less the 65% government premium subsidy provided now to private for profit health insurance.

    Congress should stop wasting hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money on private for profit health insurance subsidies. Subsidies that cost the taxpayer 10x as much or more than Medicare does. Private for profit health insurance plans cost more. But provide dangerous and poorer quality patient care.



    This is what the American people are shouting at you. Both parties have just enough power now to do what the American people want. GET! IT! DONE! NOW!

    If congress does not abolish the individual mandate. And establish a government-run public option CHOICE! before the end of 2011. EVERY! member of congress up for reelection in 2012 will face strong progressive pro public option, and anti-individual mandate replacement candidates.

    Strong progressive pro “PUBLIC OPTION” CHOICE! and anti-individual mandate volunteer candidates should begin now. And start the process of replacing any and all members of congress that obstruct, or fail to add a government-run robust PUBLIC OPTION CHOICE! before the end of 2011.

    We need two or three very strong progressive volunteer candidates for every member of congress that will be up for reelection in 2012. You should be fully prepared to politically EVISCERATE EVERY INCUMBENT that fails or obstructs “THE PUBLIC OPTION”. And you should be willing to step aside and support the strongest pro “PUBLIC OPTION” candidate if the need arises.

    ASSUME CONGRESS WILL FAIL and SELLOUT again. So start preparing now to CUT THEIR POLITICAL THROATS. You can always step aside if they succeed. But only if they succeed. We didn’t have much time to prepare before these past midterm elections. So the American people had to use a political shotgun approach. But by 2012 you will have a scalpel.

    Congress could have passed a robust government-run public option during it’s lame duck session. They knew what the American people wanted. They already had several bills on record. And the house had already passed a public option. Departing members could have left with a truly great accomplishment. And the rest of you could have solidified your job before the 2012 elections.

    President Obama, you promised the American people a strong public option available to everyone. And the American people overwhelmingly supported you for it. Maybe it just wasn’t possible before. But it is now.

    Knock heads. Threaten people. Or do whatever you have to. We will support you. But get us that robust public option CHOICE! available to everyone on day one before the end of 2011. Or We The People Of The United States will make the past midterm election look like a cake walk in 2012. And it will include you.

    We still have a healthcare crisis in America. With hundreds of thousands dieing needlessly every year in America. And a for profit medical industrial complex that threatens the security and health of the entire world. They have already attacked the world with H1N1 killing thousands, and injuring millions. And more attacks are planned for profit, and to feed their greed.

    Spread the word people.

    Progressives, prepare the American peoples scalpels. It’s time to remove some politically diseased tissues.

    God Bless You my fellow human beings. I’m proud to be one of you. You did good.

    See you on the battle field.


    jacksmith – WorkingClass :-)

  8. bmull says:

    For the record, I did not say I anticipated the problems the president was going to have with the 111th Congress. But HE should have! His kitchen cabinet was the most Congressionally-experienced ever. I assumed they had a plan to pass the key parts of Obama’s campaign platform. I was wrong.

    Racism accounting for Obama’s lack of support on the left? I don’t think so. Clinton was a much more skilled politician than Obama. He made people feel pretty good about him even as he was selling progressives down the river. Failing to manage expectations is one reason Obama is in trouble politically.

  9. JReid says:

    @Bmull brings the Greenwald water bucket, as if on cue.

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  11. cyndi weiss says:

    right on mellisa, what you wrote “Black President-Double Standard is “RIGHT ON”!!! i’m a white 62 yr. old women(and in 2011, i should not even have to print that) however i have learned that racism is alive and well. at first i thought it was because of the area of the country i lived in, but i do believe racism is alive and well throughout the u.s.!!! it’s very sad, and i applaud you to have the guts to print the Absolute Truth!!! i realize the wonderful gift my parents gave myself and my 2 brothers, because we do not see color, religious beliefs, etc. i can honestly say there is not a bigoted bone in our bodies!!! your article is EXACTLY what i have been saying now for a very long time, in fact some of my black friends can’t realize that i truly thought things were different for blacks, hispanics, and the minorities!!! it actually, sickens and embarrasses me how many whites act towards are pres. I am also a democratic precinct committeewomnan, who will literally “walk off shoe leather” to make sure Pres. Obama is re-elected Pres. This Pres. has inherited the most extreme mess in the history of our country, and for people to let bigotry top “CLEANING” this mess up is absolutely disgusting!!! i am so disgusted w/the repubs-tea party and some of the white progressives that i could literally “throw-up”!!! again, wonderful article and pure 100% FACT!!!

  12. Kelly says:

    Re: “The debate has been vitriolic at times because this is an argument over the soul of the Democratic Party – How we define liberalism –”

    No, the debate is over the soul of America and how we define what kind of country we will be. Obama has legalized many of Bush’s violations of the consitution. Moreover, he has done nothing to stop Wall St from continuing to loot the Treasury.

    Harris-Perry’s accusation regarding white liberals is based on her feelings, not on any facts. The election has not even occurred yet, but she has already decided that white liberals will not vote for Obama in the same numbers that they voted for Clinton, and she has already decided that she knows why. Does she have ESP? Is she a mind reader?

    Or is she full of BS and looking for a way to shut down the growing criticism of Obama? (YES) She is so transparent.

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  14. Misty says:

    @Kelly: We’ve ended torture and returned to the Geneva convention standards, we’ve ended Iraq, We’ve reversed the ban on stem cell research, we’ve passed the Freedom of Information Act of 2009, We’ve advanced gay rights.

    But for the most part, they guy has not been given enough credit for the things reverse on his watch.

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