Writing in The Nation, Tulane political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry suggests that President Obama may be suffering from “liberal electoral racism,” which she defines as “the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.” After arguing that Obama’s record of progressive achievements is comparable to President Clinton’s, she argues that “[t]he 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent,” which could be seen as “the triumph of a more subtle form of racism”:

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.

Since 2008, there has been a disturbing accumulation of evidence that race affects how Americans view Obama. You can’t understand Americans’ views of Obama without considering the role of racial affect. With that said, however, there are other explanations for the differences in the support received by Obama and Clinton.

First, it’s not surprising that Obama’s approval numbers are relatively weak because the economy — which plays the dominant role in presidential approval and electoral performance — has performed worse under him than it did under Clinton. Here, for instance, is a comparison of how nonfarm employment has changed under the two presidents relative to their first month in office:

Even if Obama is not held responsible for the economic downturn he inherited, job growth since the recession ended has been weaker than it was during the comparable period in Clinton’s term.

In addition, Harris-Perry cites Clinton’s increased support among various groups in 1996 compared to 1992. However, much of the difference between the results is attributable to the decreased performance of Ross Perot in 1996 — Clinton only increased his share of the two-party vote marginally between those elections (53.5% in 1992 versus 54.7% in 1996).

In addition, the decline in Obama approval among white Americans since 2009 is not strictly comparable to the change in Clinton’s electoral performance between 1992 and 1996. Gallup data show that Clinton actually only averaged 44% approval among whites during the third year of his term (he reached 52% approval among whites during 1996 as the economy continued to strengthen).

It is far too early, of course, to know how race will affect Obama’s performance in the general election in November 2012. It may also be true that liberals do not give Obama sufficient credit for his legislative accomplishments. But for the moment at least, I don’t think we can’t confidently attribute the differences between Obama’s and Clinton’s support among the general public to race.

[Cross-posted at Brendan-Nyhan.com]

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.