A Dangerous Idea

Those who live in the world of ideas like to think ideas have consequences. A dangerous idea is being promulgated which could have very unpleasant consequences in November. This is the idea that should President Obama lose his reelection bid it would be because of his race.

The opposite is true. Racism plays its largest role when we first meet someone. After we know the person, other factors come into play. A comedian once remarked, “Racists are lazy. With a little bit of effort you can learn to hate people one at a time.”

When we first meet someone, we know very little about them other than their appearance. After we know them, we judge them by our experience with them. When we first meet a store clerk, mechanic, physician, classmate or anyone else race, gender, height, appearance and other visible things are all we know. If someone recommended this person, we have that to go on.

After the initial meeting, we judge people by what they do. A good mechanic gets our car running at a fair price, a bad one doesn’t. The doctor may or may not have a good bedside manner and make us feel comfortable about his or her level of concern and knowledge. After we know the person, we judge them as individuals. Secondary characteristics like race matter less and less the more we know about a person.

If race were going to be the deciding factor for Mr. Obama, it would have been so in 2008. He was virtually unknown. He won in 2008 because of what he was not. He was not George Bush. He was not a Republican. He was not responsible for the financial crisis. For some people, the fact that he was not white was a bonus. White men had fouled things up. It was time to look elsewhere.

The 2008 election was decided on the basis of the performance of George Bush and the economy. Every presidential election is largely about the performance of the incumbent president or party. 2012 will be no different. The question before the voters is simple: Given the job Mr. Obama has done, should we vote for him or his opponent?

Even very popular presidents barely get above 60 percent of the vote. Lyndon Johnson got 61.05% in 1964 for the largest percentage in history. Franklin Roosevelt’s 60.8% in 1936 is second best. Even these popular presidents had more than 39% of the voters vote against them. It is certain that Obama will not beat either of their performances.

In 2008, Obama ran an “I am what you want to see” campaign. As the unknown outsider, he let people see what they wanted to find in him. Outsiders can do this, incumbents can’t. He is now a known quantity. He has made decisions which some people like and others do not.

His actions in support of General Motors and Chrysler helped those companies and their workers and hurt bondholders, including state worker pension funds. His policies on the environment have earned him support in some quarters while probably turning coal-oriented West Virginia against him.

Recently he has worked to build support among women voters and gay rights activists. In the process, he has moved the Catholic Church and other social conservatives into direct and open controversy with him. The election will show whether his decisions have been politically wise.

Many voters agreed that his emphasis on the health care bill was important. For others, he should have been focused on jobs and the economy. Some voters feel the stimulus was more about helping Democratic interest groups, including state workers, than boosting the general economy.  Those who support him argue he was dealt a tough hand and should be given more time to fix the economy. Others believe the results should be better by now.

Obviously there are a multitude of reasons to vote for or against any incumbent president. To claim race is the major factor is not merely incorrect, it is defamatory. And, at its worst, it could be inflammatory.

There are always those who profit from racial tension and animosity. They benefit from the passions and tensions such feelings produce and they don’t care about the consequences. Responsible people, especially those with influence on others, need to make it clear that incumbents sometimes lose. It has happened to white incumbents and could happen to President Obama. It is how politics works.

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