Obama won downscale white people’s votes by pandering to their views

An idea so crazy it’s worth trying again

Ezra Klein interviewing Barack Obama doesn’t really need a recommendation from me, but for the record, I think you should read it. Also for the record, I think Obama says a ton of smart and insightful things here and Klein asks great questions.

Naturally, I’m going to pull out a point to complain about, which is that when Obama talks about his own electoral tactics, he flatters himself by underplaying the extent to which he made unsavory choices in order to win. And then he flatters Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden by exaggerating the extent to which objective changes in the world made it harder for them to replicate his results. And to the best of my understanding, the way Obama talks about this stuff in the Klein interview is also how he talks about it in remarks to Democratic Party operatives, elected officials, and donors. This is to say that while I have no idea whether or not it’s his “real” view, it’s the story he tells very consistently, and his highest-profile former aides say similar things too.

The upshot of this myth-making is to obscure real choices that Democrats face in terms of changing their policy positions in order to win votes.

And I think you can see this obscuration at work in a recent book excerpt by Obama speechwriter and national security aide Ben Rhodes, where he starts with the story of an ex-Democrat who tells him she started voting Republican because of immigration, but he decides the real problem is “a battle between people who live in the reality of the world as it is and people who are choosing to live in a false reality made up of base white-supremacist grievances and irrational conspiracy theories—and seeking to impose it on the rest of us.”

There obviously are white supremacist grievance-mongers and irrational conspiracy theorists, and also in a more banal way, just people who want big cuts to Medicaid out there. If you want to win the battle against them, you need a realistic view of the landscape.

What Obama says he did

“In 2012, you won noncollege whites making less than $27,000 a year,” Klein observes to Obama. “Donald Trump then won them by more than 20 points. He kept them in 2020.”

The question is — how can Democrats do better with downscale whites?

Let me note as an aside that this is a very clever question. Not because non-college whites earning less than $27,000 a year are a particularly large slice of the electorate, but because people like to avoid issues that make them uncomfortable. So when progressives need to address struggles with non-college whites, they will often point out that some of these “working class” whites are actually quite wealthy. Or that some of them may be hard-core racists. But if you’re earning less than $27,000 a year, you are not wealthy. And if you’re open-minded enough to vote for Obama twice, it’s at least not obvious why racism would prevent you from voting for Joe Biden. Most of all, these low-income whites — mostly women, by the way — are people Democrats would say they are trying to help.

So here’s what Obama says he did:

People knew I was left on issues like race, or gender equality, and L.G.B.T.Q. issues and so forth. But I think maybe the reason I was successful campaigning in downstate Illinois, or Iowa, or places like that is they never felt as if I was condemning them for not having gotten to the politically correct answer quick enough, or that somehow they were morally suspect because they had grown up with and believed more traditional values.

Obama also says that “Joe Biden’s got good instincts on this.” So given Biden’s good instincts, why does Biden get such poor results?

Well, Obama talks about campaigning in small towns and doing small town media and contrasts the good effects he got with today’s media environment:

So then I could go to the fish fry, or the V.F.W. hall, or all these other venues, and just talk to people. And they didn’t have any preconceptions about what I believed. They could just take me at face value. If I went into those same places now — or if any Democratic who’s campaigning goes in those places now — almost all news is from either Fox News, Sinclair news stations, talk radio, or some Facebook page. And trying to penetrate that is really difficult.

I think both of Obama’s points are good, and I hope that people in progressive politics take him seriously. Democrats should go out of their way to convey that they hope for the votes of people who agree with them about most stuff, and respect the fact that not everyone will agree on all points and that’s okay. Democrats should also strongly encourage wealthy progressives to launch locally-focused media properties targeting rural communities. These should not be “progressive” properties; they should focus mostly on just hard news and human interest stuff. But then they can, a la Sinclair, introduce judicious amounts of political content aimed to be persuasive at elections. Launching brand new websites would be a good idea; buying up existing local TV stations would be an even better one.

But I also think Obama is not really leveling with us here.

What Obama actually did

Obama says “people knew I was left on issues like race, or gender equality, and L.G.B.T.Q. issues and so forth.”

But did they? Throughout the 2008 campaign, Obama maintained that as a matter of fundamental religious conviction, he believed marriage was between a man and a woman. Now, I think it is also true that Obama clearly signaled through elite networks that he would appoint Supreme Court justices who were likely to be sympathetic to LGBT rights plaintiffs. But at a time when marriage equality was unpopular, Obama said he was against it — changing his mind only once it got over 50%.

On race, did Obama have a “left” position? He is Black, obviously, and that was a big part of how people reacted to him politically.

But read Ta-Nehisi Coates on “How The Obama Administration Talks to Black America” or Jelani Cobb on “The Politics of Black Aspiration” or Jamelle Bouie on “What Obama Didn’t Say in His March on Washington Speech.”

These are all articles by formidable Black intellectuals taking serious issue with Obama’s approach to racial issues. And they are hardly the only such examples out there. But this is also something that changed over time. In December 2014, with both of his election campaigns and the midterms behind him, Nia-Malika Henderson reported in the Washington Post that Obama was increasingly shunning the kind of “respectability politics” rhetoric that annoyed Black intellectuals (though Obama was still calling rioters in Baltimore “thugs”):

President Obama has made giving “tough love” speeches to black audiences a hallmark of his political career — even telling black people to stop feeding their kids “cold Popeyes” or laughing off their lack of education. But those days are increasingly behind him.

His fealty to what is often called black respectability politics always had its critics and champions, but now such rhetoric seems to be at odds with his strategy around Ferguson and, therefore, is largely absent from his public comments.

As a candidate, he lectured African Americans on Popeyes and implored them not to “just sit in the house watching SportsCenter” or to brag about an eighth-grade education. In real time, he was often cheered, though Jesse Jackson criticized him for "talking down to black people."

It also prompted columnist Jonathan Alter to write in 2008 that Obama's “most exciting potential for moral leadership could be in the African-American community.”

At around the same time, John McWhorter, a liberal Black intellectual with much more conservative views on racial matters, praised Obama’s respectability politics history and urged him to do more of it.

Without offering a view as to the merits, I will just observe that this is a topic where Obama walked a very wary tightrope. Even Obama’s critics were not entirely sure if they thought he really believed this stuff or was just doing what he had to do to get by in a racist world. There was a fair amount of hope in racial progressive circles that Hillary Clinton, a white person, would feel compelled to address racial justice issues in a more aggressive way. And for better or worse, she did that.

Biden himself is kind of an intermediate case. In unscripted moments like the heat of a presidential primary debate, he would “gaffe” and revert to Obama- or pre-Obama Democratic Party rhetoric on race. But in his scripted moments, he sounds more left on racial issues, and that reflects the way his larger administration talks.

Democrats changed positions on immigration

Obama didn’t mention immigration in that exchange with Klein, which is odd given the centrality of immigration to Trump’s rise.

Here’s a paragraph from Rhodes’ story. It’s about heading to a bed and breakfast in West Virginia to work on the Benghazi chapter of his book, only to discover that the proprietor of the hotel is eyeball deep in Benghazi conspiracy theories. But when she first describes to Rhodes why she supports Trump, she cites immigration, not any Benghazi theories:

Once the subject was broached, the woman was quick to volunteer, in the friendliest possible way, that she was a Trump supporter. She talked about how she’d moved to West Virginia from Florida, where her grown daughter was in law enforcement. She had become upset by illegal immigration, she said. She had no problem with immigrants, and she had long been okay with the influx of Latinos. But it had just gotten to be too much in their Florida community, and it was contributing to the crime that her daughter had to deal with professionally. She took out her phone and showed me a picture of her daughter, smiling with Trump during a recent trip to Mar-a-Lago.

David Shor likes to point out that if you look at cross-pressured voters who support universal healthcare but oppose a path to citizenship for the undocumented, Obama won 60% of the two-party vote split while Clinton got just 41%.

The reason Rhodes’ story struck me is that I happen to know a guy who was a very loyal Bush/McCain Republican who didn’t love Mitt Romney’s tougher on immigration stance and who hates Donald Trump. In 2016 he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton, but in 2020 he backed Joe Biden. Coincidentally enough, back in 2012, he believed various Benghazi conspiracy theories, but today, he thinks that’s dumb.

Rhodes blames the conspiracy theories for making this woman unreachable. But my experience with the flipper in the other direction makes me doubt that. In the 2000, 2004, and 2008 races, the parties just were not clearly distinct on immigration. They got more distinct in 2012 and much more distinct in 2016. So people with strongly held skepticism of immigration aligned with the GOP and picked up GOP-friendly narratives about stuff like Benghazi, while people on the other side went the other way. To me the key thing is that as Republicans moved right on immigration, Democrats moved left.

Here was Obama’s platform in 2012:

Democrats know there is broad consensus to repair that system and strengthen our economy, and that the country urgently needs comprehensive immigration reform that brings undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and requires them to get right with the law, learn English, and pay taxes in order to get on a path to earn citizenship. We need an immigration reform that creates a system for allocating visas that meets our economic needs, keeps families together, and enforces the law. But instead of promoting the national interest, Republicans have blocked immigration reform in Congress and used the issue as a political wedge.

Despite the obstacles, President Obama has made important progress in implementing immigration policies that reward hard work and demand personal responsibility. Today, the Southwest border is more secure than at any time in the past 20 years. Unlawful crossings are at a 40-year low, and the Border Patrol is better staffed than at any time in its history. We are continuing to work to hold employers accountable for whom they hire. The Department of Homeland Security is prioritizing the deportation of criminals who endanger our communities over the deportation of immigrants who do not pose a threat, such as children who came here through no fault of their own and are pursuing an education.

This was a progressive platform on immigration. Obama had done DACA for the most sympathetic undocumented people. And he was calling for a comprehensive reform that would grant legal status to the majority of the remaining undocumented population. But he also talked about border security, bragged about low levels of illegal crossings, touted Border Patrol staffing, and talked about employer sanctions. The prioritization idea was framed as getting tough on criminals, and the desired end goal was a system that included “enforces the law” among its features.

These ideas are also reflected in Obama’s big 2010 speech on comprehensive immigration reform where he clearly calls for creating a path to citizenship, but also characterizes the presence of a large number of undocumented people as a problem. He complains that “our borders have been porous for decades” but says they are now not-porous because “we have more boots on the ground near the Southwest border than at any time in history.”

Obama was clearly the more immigration-friendly candidate relative to Romney’s idea of “self-deportation.” But Obama was maintaining considerable distance between himself and immigration activists in order to reduce the distance between himself and Romney. After the failure of the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill, Obama moved toward what became DAPA. But beyond that, activists increasingly persuaded rank-and-file members that all this stuff about border security was a failed effort to bargain with Republicans and not something they should embrace as an idea they actually believed in.

Choices have consequences

In most respects, I think I like the contemporary Democratic Party’s message better than I liked its 2012- or certainly 2008-vintage message.

But I am not a swing voter, and I don’t live in a swing state or even have representation in the United States Senate. What’s changed is that Democrats went from being an urban-based diverse party that nonetheless tried pretty hard to pander to the views of rural white people in hopes of getting the voters of the poorer and less-religious among them, to becoming a party that decided it would be unnecessary or immoral to pander like that.

But the Senate map (and to a lesser extent the Electoral College) makes it absolutely necessary to pander the views of rural white people. There is no other way to win. And I think a politics of “lose your majority forever when West Virginia, Ohio, and Montana go red in 2024” can’t possibly be a moral politics. The fact that the post-Obama Democrats are somewhat less successful with Black and Latino voters than Obama was should further call into question the logic of doctrinaire moralism about these tactical choices.

Mainly, though, even if you think I’m wrong, I think it’s helpful to acknowledge that choices have been made here. That, I think, is what Obama obscures when he talks about meeting people in small town V.F.W. halls and how the media has changed. He makes it sound like either it’s impossible for a Democrat to win in Iowa (the media has changed) or else it’s just a question of hustling more (gotta go to those V.F.W. meetings and talk to folks). But while the media climate and campaign tactics both matter, the fundamental fact is that Obama tried harder to mirror the views of secular rural white midwesterners.

And his campaign, knowing that pandering to low-income rural white people is not what comes most naturally to liberal professionals, imposed ruthless message discipline on the whole party. They decided what every surrogate who went on television was supposed to say, and they’d get really fucking pissed at you if you went off-script and talked about what you thought was important rather than what they thought would help them persuade swing voters in pivotal states. That sounds really tedious in a lot of ways. I bet a bunch of young, college-educated, city-dwelling staffers for the campaigns faced some eye-rolling from their young, college-educated, city-dwelling friends about some of their messaging choices. But while there’s more to politics than winning elections, there’s literally nothing you can achieve unless you win elections first.