President Obama and the Tea Party

Tea Party Signs

 Barack Obama’s presidency is historical in many ways, including the biggest loss of public approval during the first year of a presidency.  I didn’t ride the Obama waves of “hope” or experience the crash after drinking too much Obama Kool-Aid, but I have great sympathy for him considering that this is arguably the most hostile presidential environment in modern history.  Obama is operating with antagonistic “new media,” a highly polarized electorate, and persistent racial prejudice.  I’m focusing on the role of some members of various Tea Parties in stoking the anti-Obama racism.

Obama took office with a 68% approval rating, second only to Kennedy with 72%. Obama’s job approval plummeted to 47% within a year – the largest drop on record. He joins only Ronald Reagan among presidents with approval lower than 50% at the one-year mark, but Reagan fell two points while Obama plunged over twenty points. Post-WWII presidents have enjoyed an average 17% increase in approval during the first year, so Obama’s drop goes against the typical first-year trend of gaining ground with the public.

Obama also holds the record for the most polarized job approval rating on record. In January, 2010, he had a 65-point gap between job approval ratings from Republicans (23%) and Democrats (88%); far larger than Bill Clinton’s 52% partisan gap in approval that enabled the Republican Revolution in 1994. 

What accounts for the historical loss of public approval and polarization? Racial fear is one cause. Many white people patted themselves on the back for electing the nation’s first black president, but John McCain would be president if only whites had voted in 2008 (with 55% of the vote). President Obama has been framed in absurd but damaging ways that are linked to his race. According to a recent Harris Interactive poll, 32% of Americans think Obama is Muslim, while 25% believe he was not born in the U.S. One-in-five Americans thinks that President Obama “is doing many things Hitler did.” Political opponents will invariably lob ludicrous claims at presidents, but these frames are actually sticking to Obama whose “blackness” has made him an “other” in the minds of many Americans. 

The Tea Party movement is clearly fueled by the notion of Obama as “other.” According to a recent NYTimes/CBS Poll, Tea Partiers are disproportionately wealthy, white, better educated, male, and more likely to describe their economic situation as fairly or very good. These are not the folks affected by the economic downturn. So what is driving their cause? Political Scientist Chris Parker writes that “the tea party is not just about politics and size of government. The data suggests it may also be about race.” In fact, Americans who hold racial resentment are 36% more likely to support the Tea Party than others. Only 35% of Tea Party members believe that black people are hard working, and only 45% think black people are intelligent.     

And then there are the Tea Party signs: “Obama’s Plan: White Racism.” “Obama: What you talkin’ about Willis?” A picture of Obama slitting Uncle Sam’s throat. A sign portraying Obama as Steve Urkel. “Congress = Slave Owner/ Taxpayer = nigger,” “Obama’s Tax Laws Enslave Everyone.” And Michele Bachman railed against Obama’s “gangsta government” at a recent Tea Party rally. Of course not all Tea Partiers or Obama critics are racist, but the NAACP is right: it’s disingenuous to argue that racial fear isn’t one of the driving forces of the Tea Party.

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