Barack Obama Year in Office: the Racial Divide

Slipping poll numbers, GOP victories suggest Obama losing ground with whites.

January 25, 2010, 12:03 PM

Jan. 26, 2010— -- One year after America congratulated itself on electing the country's first black president, it seems white voters have been much quicker than blacks to lose patience with Barack Obama's policies.

While Obama's overall approval rating remains strong, polls and recent elections suggest he has stumbled significantly among white voters.

Republican pundit Pat Buchanan has used Obama's slipping poll numbers and major Democratic election losses in three states to bolster his claim that Obama has alienated white voters, particularly with his massive health care reform bill. Buchanan argued that health care in particular is seen by white voters as benefiting minorities and immigrants .

According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, his job approval rating, though 53 percent overall, slipped to just 44 percent among whites surveyed.

Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, which put out similar approval ratings, said their research shows Obama's dip in approval among whites has nothing to do with the color of his skin.

"Obama is not being judged through the prism of race by white voters," Kohut told "It's because, 'Hey, I don't like what he's doing.'"

Democratic presidents have historically had a more difficult time holding on to white voters, the majority of whom identify themselves as Republicans or Republican-leaning Independents. Minorities are heavily Democrat.

Leaders in the black community rejected Buchanan's analysis, dismissing him as part of the fringe right who will never see past Obama's race.

"I think that is Pat Buchanan's attempt to racialize the one-year anniversary as well as the mid-term elections," the Rev. Al Sharpton told "My counsel to the black community and to the president is don't go to the bait."

Obama has already attempted to make concessions in his approach to health care in light of the Democrats' shocking loss of the Massachusetts' Senate seat to Republican Scott Brown. And he hired former campaign manager David Plouffe to get his agenda back on track.

Sharpton said Obama has not given the black community any special treatment and pointed out that the president has yet to pass one bill directed at helping the black community.

"Even at his height, there was always a gap between how he polled" between the races, Sharpton said. "There's no evidence at all of the president trying to curry favor with blacks."

Despite slipping poll numbers among whites, surveys find that a relatively low percentages of voters of any race believe Obama is favoring a black agenda. According to the recent Pew Research Center poll, 13 percent of whites and Hispanics and 1 percent of blacks said they believe he's paying too much attention to the concerns of the black community.

Simply holding the highest office in the nation is what's largely buoying Obama's staggeringly high ratings among blacks -- 96 percent for job approval, 92 percent for favorability, according to the ABC News/Washington Post poll -- even as the community is disproportionately affected by a lack of health care insurance, foreclosure and job loss.

Sharpton called Obama's sky-high poll numbers among blacks the result of "natural pride." Kohut called it unprecedented loyalty.

"We're willing to give him more time," Sharpton said. "I think that what he's done is said to the black community is that he will help them as he helps America. He's made a point not to single out blacks."

Many in the black community largely saw Obama's 2008 election as the biggest civil rights victory in U.S. history. It was a moment of immense pride, not just for blacks, but for voters who participated in a such a defining moment.

"I cried that night because it was the joy of the moment and the journey," the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., told "I think many people still share that sense of joy."

"At one level it lifted the ceilings off of our ambitions," Sharpton said. "It made what seemed unattainable, attainable."

Obama's Year in Office: Lifting Ceilings or Deepening Divisions?

Though healthcare advocates say Obama's plan for reform would benefit all uninsured Americans, the very existence of his health care agenda has caused some Republicans to say he's favoring minorities. Buchanan argued the expanded coverage of uninsured people would overwhelmingly affect immigrants, and that cost would be borne by taxpayers and at the expense of other programs that benefit whites, like Medicare.

"Pat Buchanan has always represented a certain group of people who have their own interpretation as to what makes an American," U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., told "I had hoped he would have matured over the years and had a broader understanding of what made America great, but he's always had a limited view of the contributions that minorities and foreigners can and have made to this great nation."

While race remains a focus for some, as evidenced by a seemingly endless string of vicious attacks and innuendos -- even longtime Obama ally Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got snared by a race-tinged comment -- most American voters seem simply not to care about his race anymore.

Torie Clarke, former Bush administration spokeswoman, told "People who have real issues and real problems very quickly don't care" about skin color.

Clarke charged that the politicians and pundits who make statements that are obviously inflammatory are doing so in hopes of getting a reaction.

"They know how to get people excited and they know how to get attention," she said. Conversely, "I think there are a fair number of people who are involved in politics or public service who still hesitate to criticize the substance of Obama's politics, for instance, because they are afraid of being called racist."

Even the most jubiliant of supporters know that attention to Obama's skin color will never go away completely.

"I think it's healthy for Americans to be reminded that electing a president of color is a great symbolic victory, but you don't change generations of thought just by electing someone," Rangel said. "He always will be to many Americans a black president rather than a president who happens to be black."

President Obama: 'More About Direction Than Complexion'

Geraldine Ferraro, who made history in 1984 as the first major-party female vice-presidental candidate, attributed the Democratic losses in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virgnia, not to a dissatisfaction with Obama or a loss of faith among white voters, but because Obama's victory was in large part fueled by the chance to make history.

"It was an enthusiasm," she said, that just didn't carry over as voters became more entrenched in their own worries about jobs, money and medical bills.

"He walked in that door and he's president. Yeah, that historic thing is there. But he's our president," she said. "He's facing the same problems that Hillary [Clinton] would have faced if she walked into the door or the same thing that George W. Bush or the other white guys for 200 years have faced."

"When I see him doing things as president," she said, "I don't see him as a black president."

Whether Obama would be able to please both the white and black communities has been continuous fodder for his opponents from the moment he emerged as a viable presidential candidate. At one point during the Democratic primaries,some wondered whether Obama was "black enough."

"I think that's an insulting and absurd question," Jackson said. ""No one ever asks the question -- white enough."

Though color of Obama's skin will always be perhaps his most distinguishing physical characteristic, black leaders say hope conservatives will eventually concede the seemingly unending need to call attention to the divide between blacks and whites.

His efforts to turn the country around in the midst of two wars and the biggest economic crisis in generations are for the benefit of everyone.

"Ultimately it's more about direction than complexion," Jackson said. "The success of his presidency is intertwined with the destiny of the nation."