African-American Liberals Know How to Love Their President

Jonathan Chait’s much-discussed essay in New York magazine indicted the left for being perennially, loudly and unrealistically disappointed in Democratic Presidents. In Chait’s view, much of the left ignores the constraints on Presidential power (e.g., Congress, of which Drew Westen et al seem to be in ignorance) and doesn’t have the stomach or attention span for the slow, daily grind of governance. He also charges the left with crippling their own leaders with faithlessness and then blaming them when they are thereby forced to compromise with the other side. Chait sees these patterns as almost entirely independent of Obama, being instead a style, outlook and set of norms among liberals that goes back for decades. In short,

Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president — indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious –but not with the real thing.

Related themes were sounded by Nicholas Kristof, who attacked the “hold your nose as you vote” chic fashionable among some leftists (emphasis mine):

Many Democrats and journalists alike, feeling grouchy, were dismissive of Al Gore and magnified his shortcomings. We forgot the context, prided ourselves on our disdainful superiority, and won eight years of George W. Bush.

All of this is true of a certain type of liberal in the U.S., but I wish Chait and Kristof had taken the time to exempt from criticism the most stalwart segment of liberal America: African-Americans. Perpetually indignant white liberals could learn a lot from them.

The Power of Love

Opinions polls continue to show extremely high approval ratings for President Obama among Black Americans. But even the high proportion of Black people who tell pollsters they “approve” of the President doesn’t begin to capture the feelings that go beyond approval and extend to love and admiration (after all, if you think the President is, you guess, doing okay on balance, you say “approve” to a pollster). It’s not hard to see these intense emotions in many African-Americans if you know where to look.

I recently wrote a piece suggesting that the Obamas should campaign as a couple, which was picked up by some websites with sizable African-American readerships (e.g. Jack and Jill Politics, The Smithian). In that more Black-dominated part of the web, I saw more unreservedly positive comments about the President than I have read in the past year in all of what I suppose are my typically white Internet reading habits. Gone were the usual jibes that Obama is an “Eisenhower Republican” or “plutocratic sellout”. Indeed, many people referred to him (and his wife) as heroes and inspirational leaders, among a number of other cynicism-free superlatives.

It reminded me of an event I attended last year in the East Room of the White House. As a group of us who had worked on the President’s AIDS strategy awaited Obama’s arrival, an African-American woman asked me to give her my spot near the lectern so that she might shake the President’s hand. She had in her purse a glove which her sister had made her promise to put on immediately after any handshake with Obama. Her sister wanted no one and nothing to touch the hand the President had touched until she herself removed the glove and experienced her hero’s touch, even indirectly. I was so touched by her and her sister’s devotion that I moved myself and a few other people out of the way to give her a chance (she got her precious handshake, and left the White House joyfully gloved).

I can hear a few white liberal noses curling at this account of shameless President-love: how fulsome, how unsophisticated, how jejune. But I would say how human, how bravely committed and how encouraging to a President who needs more than truculent, nose-holding liberal voters behind him to accomplish great things.

Why Do African-Americans So Love Barack Obama?

Another story from the White House: Tom McLellan and I were in the White House Mess, taking a new, Asian-American member of the Administration to lunch. The man espied an African-American White House staffer whom he had known years before. They both jumped up in surprise and hugged each other in recognition. And then a second squeeze and loud laughter. As Steinbeck once wrote, I thought I saw the beginning of a tear in their eyes but maybe it was in my own. I knew what that second hug meant: We. Made. It. People of color made it. From slavery and Jim Crow and racial oppression to the West Wing. I will always be grateful to President Obama for making this possible, but as a white person I cannot fully understand experientially what those two fine men and countless other people of color receive in their hearts every time it hits them that the President of the United States is an African-American.

Understanding that reality, I cringe at the white, alleged liberals who call on Obama to acknowledge that his is a failed presidency. They want the first Black President in history to, effectively, announce that he is a bumbling affirmative action baby, apologize for being so uppity as to have ever assumed otherwise and resign in disgrace so that Hillary Clinton or some other qualified (i.e. white) person can lead the party. Would that such white “progressives” were required to focus group their proposal in a locked room with a random sample of 20 African-American women. Fortunately, the President has ignored their call to set back race relations a generation and crush the optimism he has generated among people of color nationally. These attacks on the President, like others, generally go nowhere with African-Americans; indeed they may even strengthen their commitment to him.

But all that said, my own question of why Blacks so love Obama elides the broader reality evidenced by their very high approval ratings of a white Democratic President, Bill Clinton. Blacks have a special place in the hearts for Barack Obama, but fundamentally, if you are a Democratic President, Black people in this country have your back.

What Some White Liberals Could Learn From Black Liberals

Many white progressives have remained loyal to the President they elected. But imagine the situation if all white liberals were as consistently supportive of their Presidents as are Black liberals. President Obama would currently be assured of easy re-election and the Congress would know it, making his negotiating hand infinitely stronger. Democratic donors could re-direct money to Congressional races secure in the knowledge that Obama’s re-election was a lock. Instead, like all Democratic Presidents, Barack Obama knows he is leading an army in which some of the troops (as Chait notes) were calling him a traitor even before he got sworn in and an increasing number are looking to abandon the field. In that situation, a rational commander looks for an accommodation with the other side because he can’t win with a half-committed army versus a fully-committed one. A subset of white liberals are thus creating the conditions for their own disappointment, and for that of those white and black liberals who have kept the faith.

Why aren’t white liberals as consistently supportive of their Presidents as Black liberals? Despite massive, heroic progress in racial equality in the United States, white people still get their way more often or not. And it’s easy to get used to that. Black people, even highly accomplished Black people, are more aware that all change is resisted, good things don’t happen without years of sustained work, and that often you have to work twice as hard to get half as much. They don’t expect a yellow pony for a birthday present and thus they don’t feel that someone has failed them when it isn’t delivered giftwrapped to their door. That makes them the grown-ups of the American left, whom the hold-your-nose set would do well to emulate.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

39 thoughts on “African-American Liberals Know How to Love Their President”

  1. First of all, calling someone an “Eisenhower Republican” is not an insult, especially if it’s true! Would we had more of them left! Or, *any* of them left, on the other side of the aisle.

    And, is this “In that situation, a rational commander looks for an accommodation with the other side because he can’t win with a half-committed army versus a fully-committed one…” your way of describing the path of the president’s first term? Are you kidding me???

    Blind loyalty is more of right wing thing. Deal with it. Doesn’t mean we don’t like the guy.

    1. NCG, within liberal circles, calling a left-of-center Democrat an “Eisenhower Republican” isn’t a compliment. At least not the liberal circles I’m aware of.

  2. “Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president.”

    Do you have any idea how insulting it is to say that liberals have no rational basis to be dissatisfied with Obama, but are simply emotionally incapable of feeling satisfied with him? You are saying that it is not rational to be disturbed by the fact that Obama

    -in violation of the Constitution and federal statutes, is fighting wars or killing civilians with drones in seven Middle East countries, thereby increasing the hatred of the U.S. and the likelihood of terrorist crimes against the U.S.

    -is murdering Americans overseas without due process.

    -is imprisoning people in Guantanamo and elsewhere even though their innocence has been established.

    -is maintaining secret prisons and sending prisoners to countries that he knows will torture them.

    -tortured Bradley Manning, who has been in prison without a trial for almost a year and a half.

    -not only refused to prosecute Bush and those in his administration who tortured, but interfered with foreign nations and with civil suits that tried to hold the torturers accountable. This action not only effectively legalized torture, but established the President as above the law, thereby changing the fundamental nature of our government. In this respect, Obama may have done more harm to the U.S. than any preceding President.

    -is prosecuting a record number of whistleblowers.

    -is breaking his promise to leave medical marijuana alone in states that have legalized it.

    -is deporting a record number of people, including those who have lived here from early childhood.

    Others may add to this list of irrational concerns; I haven’t said anything about the economy.

  3. It has to be a two-way street. I hear what Chait is saying (and fwiw, I never had any intention of voting R or staying home, even though in my state I could easily to so w/o worrying), but I think he’s overstating the case. And I think you are too.

    Don’t worry: the bat guano insanity of the GOP will ensure liberals will turn out and vote for Obama again. All this worrying about liberal apathy is overblown.

  4. It’s worth noting that two white liberals who have been unswerving in their support for the President are Bill and Hillary Clinton

    1. Perhaps you weren’t around in the 1990s, when Clinton was known for being a triangulator, not a liberal. A liberal would not have signed the Defense of Marriage Act or the Communications Decency Act (the latter struck down by the Supreme Court before it took effect, the former continuing to do harm).

      By the way, to point out serious flaws in Clinton and Obama is not to deny that they are lesser evils than any Republican.

  5. I just know about my in-laws (all black bourgeois):
    – The wife views Obama as an Eisenhower Republican, not that there’s anything wrong with that. She still gets goose-bumps from the idea of a black president, but is lukewarm towards the current black president.
    – The brother-in-law (an Edwards man in the primaries) is about the same.
    – The entrepreneur cousin is a rabid supporter, but has also shares some OWS-style doubts
    – The retired uncle is a solid, not rabid supporter
    – The wife’s ex- is a Republican. It happens.

    Solid support? Yes. Love? Maybe not so much. (Yes, and I know that this is a very selected sample, and the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”.) It is worth remembering that Obama got very little black support until the white folk of Iowa certified him as a real candidate for all Americans.

  6. Passing strange that “much of the left ignores the constraints on Presidential power” given that the left surely constituted much of the audience for the late, lamented “West Wing” TV series — a core theme of which was those very limits.

  7. ¨.. the President of the United States is an African-American…¨
    I argued against the hyphen in 2008 and was not IMHO refuted. That´s not to say the rock-solid support of African Americans to Barack Obama and his indisputably African-American wife is any kind of mistake. White racism doesn´t make fine distinctions, and nor should its targets. A half-Luo ferryman gets them across the river just fine.

    1. Wow, that was a pretty detailed post you linked.

      Though one doesn’t need much detail—“Obama is not descended from American slaves” suffices. Whether one thinks that matters is a different story of course.

  8. The latest PPP tracking poll says that 88% of liberals approve of Barack Obama’s job performance. Say that 20% of U.S. liberals are black (anyone know the actual figure?), and that 95% of black liberals approve of Obama’s job performance. That means that 86% of white liberals approve of Obama’s job performance. Only 16% of the sample used by PPP self-identifies as liberal. So upping support for Obama among to 95% among the 13% of the electorate that is white and liberal would increase his overall approval rating by 1.1 percentage points – from 47% to 48.1%. That would hardly make him a lock for reelection. So I think Keith is attributing too much importance to liberals here – they simply aren’t enough liberals for in the U.S. to make “dissident liberals” a formidable voting bloc. They’re just overrepresented in the blogosphere and in the imagination of pundits.

    On the other hand, if white liberals voted and volunteered at rates comparable to African-Americans with similar socioeconomic backgrounds, Democrats would be in much better shape.

  9. Understanding that reality, I cringe at the white, alleged liberals who call on Obama to acknowledge that his is a failed presidency. They want the first Black President in history to, effectively, announce that he is a bumbling affirmative action baby, apologize for being so uppity as to have ever assumed otherwise and resign in disgrace so that Hillary Clinton or some other qualified (i.e. white) person can lead the party.

    This is overwrought, and as a white liberal I find it incredibly offensive. I supported Hillary Clinton not because she was white (or a woman), but because I thought–and still think–she was more qualified, politically and temperamentally, than Obama. And he’d have been just as less qualified if he’d been white (or a woman). No, I don’t “call on Obama to acknowledge his is a failed presidency,” or any of the rest of your disgraceful characterization. But I’m in accord with Henry’s list of serious mistakes and betrayals, many of which surprised even those of us who were dubious about his commitment to real change but were hoping he would prove us wrong once in office. (And I’d add to his list today’s announcement by Sibelius that she was overruling the FDA’s recommendation that emergency contraception be available to adolescent women without a prescription.)

    This kind of race-baiting is inexcusable, IMHO.

    1. Maybe *you* don’t do those things, but I have seen plenty of very vocal white liberals who call on Obama to do exactly the things Keith mentions.

      That said, I agree with Keith’s basic point. This has not just happened to Obama. Every Democratic president since Roosevelt has experienced this phenomenon. It completely crippled Jimmy Carter, and threatened to do the same to Clinton. The complete absence of memory of those who complain about Obama’s perfidy in comparison to Bill Clinton is astounding. They’re moving the goalposts on a continuous basis. And if you think that Hillary Clinton would have been any less guilty than Obama (a relative term, since I’m a lot less convinced that Henry is correct than you are) is deluded. By making that argument, you are reinforcing Keith’s point, not refuting it.

      1. Actually Hillary would have been just as bad: the republicans would have also refused to work with her, she would have also tried to work with them to her detriment, the economy would be in the same shitty mess that it is now, and the general populace would also be just as confused about the differences between the parties as they are now.

    2. Well, I’m a black liberal who supported Obama over Clinton, and I also think the race-baiting in this blogpost is disgraceful and inexcusable…not to mention patronizing to black people. “African-American Liberals Know How to Love Their President”? Come on.

  10. J. Michael,

    You skipped Truman. He was unapologetic about his liberalism, and yes, he had to deal with his Wallace. But he didn’t trim sails to play nice with the GOP.

    The New Deal died once red baiting was deemed politically expedient.

    1. You’re kind of forgetting about the whole Cold War thing and the creation of the national security state, aren’t you? I’m a big fan of Truman, but pretending that he didn’t compromise with the Republicans is wrong.

  11. I have seen plenty of very vocal white liberals who call on Obama to do exactly the things Keith mentions.

    You should have used Keith’s weasely word “effectively.” “Exactly” doesn’t leave you any wiggle room.

    What Hillary Clinton would or would not have done as president is irrelevant. The point is that many liberals who ended up supporting her didn’t see it as a racial contest; we had substantive concerns about Obama, and still do. I got called a racist one too many times during the primaries by hysterical Obamabots to take it lightly when it comes up at this stage of the game, after many of those concerns proved to be right on target.

    You might quibble with a word here or there in Henry’s list, but I doubt you’d be successful at wiping the slate clean.

    I have no idea what point you’re making about Bill Clinton; it sounds contradictory. As for the goalposts, maybe they *need* to be moved if leaving them where they are means presidents can continue to trash the Constitution without being held accountable.

  12. I can hear a few white liberal noses curling at this account of shameless President-love: how fulsome, how unsophisticated, how jejune.

    I might call it a few different things: cultish, authoritarian, crazy as hell.

    Well, maybe her sister has scrofula.

  13. white, alleged liberals

    I don’t know who has alleged that Caddell and Schoen are liberals. Their critique of Obama – that he is “overly partisan” – certainly shares nothing with the liberal critique.

  14. Blind loyalty is more of right wing thing.

    Like NCG, I’m not a fan of blind loyalty, but I don’t think this is quite right.

    The Tea Party is not at all blindly loyal – their membership has strong policy preferences that differ from those of the Republican elite, and the Republican Party is moving strongly in their direction. Think of it: The United States government was talking recently about defaulting on its debt! Nobody sane wanted that, but it the issue was put on the table because voters made their wishes known.

    The expectation that all liberals should have the same priorities as African American liberals (or any other kind of liberal) is absurd – just as it has often been absurd to expect African Americans to share the same priorities as other American liberals. Like it or not, liberals (as NCG suggests) are a heterogenous group, more or less by definition.

  15. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president—either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.

    Chait dismisses as a “fantasy” the Obama that actually ran for and won election. And when you look at promises Obama has actually kept – the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, for example – he temporized, but moved after getting political pressure from the left. I wish there had been more effective pressure from the left on the economy, but at least we had Nancy Pelosi around to stiffen Obama’s spine on healthcare after Scott Brown’s election.

    Chait also argues that liberals are all misty-eyed about Bill Clinton, but that seems unjustified by the facts. Clinton – like Obama – is rightly regarded as a left-leaning centrist in a conservative era, and is naturally going to catch a certain amount of flak from people with different political priorities.

    The liberals who are sentimental about Bill tend to be the same ones that are supportive of Obama – and both, by the way, almost certainly represent the significant majority of liberals (as angel eyes notes above).

    Chait’s foray into history is very weird. He says – correctly – that Carter was not the liberal president of the current popular imagination, but seems to think that liberals shouldn’t have disagreed with Carter’s conservative priorities. And is he actually trying to suggest that liberals should have publicly supported Johnson on Vietnam? Seriously? Here’s Chait:

    Martin Luther King Jr. said that Kennedy “vacillated” on civil rights.

    And he’s right! MLK had some pretty unkind words for “moderation” on racial issues.

    Chait writes a lot of good and useful stuff, but he’s an Establishment guy, as is Keith. Establishment guys have their role, but certain kinds of progress are impossible unless outsiders are going to raise some hell.

  16. And when you look at promises Obama has actually kept – the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, for example – he temporized, but moved after getting political pressure from the left.

    This is a perfect example of a (white) prog narrative that simply isn’t true.

    Thing 1: He couldn’t abolish DADT by executive order (as people like Maddow argued for) because it was passed by Congress. Separation of powers and all that.

    Thing 2: So the obstacle to DADT repeal was not the President but Congress. Which point was nicely illustrated when it finally passed the Senate with 1 or 2 votes to spare.

    Thing 3: What the President did do was work the Joint Chiefs, to get them all (or nearly all) on board with repeal. That probably paid off to some degree when they testified in favor of repeal, but the real importance of this is in implementation of the policy. Repeal without buy-in from the top brass would have been a clusterf**ck.

    So, to sum up: no “temporizing”; no evidence that the Professional Left had any influence on the outcome; and any delay beyond that needed to make the policy work came entirely from Congress.

  17. Tom, I think that’s mostly accurate, but I’ll ask you: Absent pressure from the left, do you think Obama would have pushed this? After all, as you note, there was a lot of institutional resistance, and the argument is that Obama should be given a free pass for buckling to institutional resistance. Were gay rights activists wrong to push on this?

    1. Yes, I think he would have pushed it anyway, largely because he started doing the things Tom points out long before that disappointed pressure got started.

    2. …and the argument is that Obama should be given a free pass for buckling to institutional resistance

      I have no idea what this is supposed to mean, since neither I nor anyone else here has argued that, and since in the case were talking about the President didn’t “buckl[e] to institutional resistance”.

      Were gay rights activists wrong to push on this?

      “Wrong”? “Right”? Those are silly words to use in this context.

      Activists who were lobbying individual members of Congress were doing the tactically smart thing–that is, they were putting the pressure where it was most needed and most likely to contribute to a positive result.

      Activists who showed support for the President and for congressional allies were also making a productive effort; when you’re trying to do the right thing, it helps to know that there are people out there who have your back.

      Activists who ignored evidence of the President’s continued commitment to repealing DADT, and slammed him for supposedly abandoning the issue, did absolutely no good and probably some non-trivial harm.

  18. I’ll add that “Professional Left” is an unfortunate bit of rhetoric, aping, as it does, the conservative trope about “liberal elites.”

    In fact, “professional left” is a better description of Obama supporters like Keith than it is the assortment of bloggers and Occupy Wall Street types who are critical of him.

    That said, I like professionalism, and I think being genuinely elite is a good thing. While I disagree with Keith on this issue, it’s certainly a fine thing that there are professional leftists out there to ponder, say, AIDS strategy.

  19. I absolutely support the president. (I am white.) But then, I long ago concluded that I was, sad as I found it, part of the Reagan generation, and it is my modest hope that Obama would be the beginning of the next cycle, one that doesn’t make tax policy a sacred altar upon which to sacrifice anything and everything, however good, but mostly, education and health care. I never saw Obama as anything other than the beginning of this hope. The idea that he would turn the last 30 years around in a single term was and remains outlandishly foolish. I am sure he knows that. I also support his wife. I just can’t imagine how hard it is to be the object of such utterly undeserved hostility and implied violence and know, in your heart, a lot of it has to do with something you never had any control over, and that is, the color of your skin.

    By the way, I went to a fundraiser in which the president was the featured guest, where I traded my place in line to another white woman who was just delirious about the prospect of being able to shake Obama’s hand, and afterwars she told me she wasn’t going to wash it for at least 24 hours. Us white Obama groupies are out here!

  20. “She had in her purse a glove which her sister had made her promise to put on immediately after any handshake with Obama.”

    My inclination is to put on a glove before shaking hands with a politician.

  21. This is the usual intentional confusion of “liberal” and “Democrat.” Obama is a Democrat, but he’s not particularly liberal. There isn’t a single issue on which he won’t cut to the center.

  22. Another case in point, not that anyone is still here: Clinton’s judicial appointments were virtually never liberals, see, e.g.,,

    while Republican presidents always choose the most reliably hard-right conservative judges they can get through the Senate. The result is that since Reagan the federal bench has moved very far to the right from where it had been in the post-war period in the last two decades – and given life tenure for judges this is a change that we will not see reversed for decades, if ever.

  23. Ask your fellow RBC columnist Harold Pollock about the Council Wars in Chicago. That term is applied to the situation faced by Chicago’s first African AMerican mayor, Harol Washington, who once elected faced massive (and not always passive) resistance from his fellow Democrats, merely because he wasn’t one of them. Obama is certainly faced with the same constraints, this time from Congressional Republicans.

    And I speak as an older white woman, who watched all of this in Chicago and who sees many of the same limits placed on Obama. And I say, he is my President, he is all of our President, and I never expected to like everything that he did. That would be an unrealistic expectation, especially for liberals who tend to forget that we make up only 15% of the electorate. Yes, 15%. But he is my President and I support him. Do you really want Newt Gingrich? End of story.

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