Beginning last week, President Obama's approval rating is now the lowest it's ever been, with just 45 percent of Americans saying they're satisfied with the job he's doing, according to Gallup. With the economy still flagging, the WikiLeaks fiasco looming over Afghanistan and an embarrassing run-in with new populist hero Shirley Sherrod, the president, who once seemed untouchable, is losing support from practically every demographic, including formerly reliable allies. Women, young people, Democrats and the highly educated are all slowly losing faith in the Obama administration.
Yet as supporters peel away by the day, one group has yet to significantly give up on the president: African Americans. Though Obama no longer enjoys the 96 percent black approval of months past, he's still never known what it's like to not have the support of at least 80 percent of African American voters. Currently, more than nine out of 10 blacks polled approve of Barack Obama's job performance, a bounce back from a year low of 85 percent following the Sherrod dustup. There have been apologies and speeches since then, and Obama is back on top — at least with blacks.
That the president gets such high marks in the African-American community is cause for consternation among conservatives. In the Washington Examiner, Byron York suggests that blacks are somehow unfairly tipping the scales — an absurd premise — when he writes that "the president and some of his policies are significantly less popular with white Americans than with black Americans, and his sky-high ratings among African Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are." Here, a conservative African-American blogger calling himself "Right Black" posits, "I think that the [more than] 60 percent of African Americans who support President Barack Obama do so because they are proud to see him, someone who looks like them, in the White House."
Such is a common refrain by Obama's detractors on the right: Black people like Obama because he's black, not because of his ideology or policy decisions. Once again, here's Byron York in the National Review:
Black Democrats are voting largely along racial lines. With few policy differences between the candidates, Obama won 92 percent of the black vote in Mississippi, 91 percent in Wisconsin, 87 percent in Ohio, 84 percent in Maryland, and 84 percent in Texas. White Democrats are voting significantly less along racial lines, but there are still divisions.
One need only consider this year's extensive list of trounced black Republicans to know that African-American voters do, in fact, look past skin color when electing leaders. It's a lie — and a subtly racist one at that — to suggest that blacks voted for Obama primarily because they identified with his ethnicity.
Well, the answer is complex.
First, the easy part: Blacks almost always vote Democrat. "One thing to keep in mind is partisanship," says Andra Gillespie, assistant professor of political science at Emory University. "Blacks overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, so as a group, they're going to be more inclined to support the president." In an ABC poll from 2000, 86 percent of blacks said they approved of the outgoing Bill Clinton's job performance. That's a point higher than Obama's black approval last week, and proof that even whites can earn major African-American support if they're ideologically aligned with the community. What's more, blacks will not support black Democrats with whom they disagree just because they're black and Democrat; once again, consider Obama's dip in approval among blacks in the wake of the Sherrod firing.
Perhaps the increasingly ubiquitous Tea Party movement is also a factor in Obama's African-American approval numbers. According to Valeria Sinclair-Chapman, a University of Rochester professor specializing in blacks in politics, African Americans who are asked their feelings about the president may feel the need to protect him — sort of like a macro version of a big brother who picks on his younger sibling but won't allow anyone else the same pleasure. "I think the opposition is important," says Chapman. "If the Tea Party didn't just critique everything — if they were giving him credit for some things — then I think blacks could retreat from being protective of him. If he were not so embattled, I think there'd be [blacks] more willing to critique or to pull away from him."
And when those attacks are racially motivated, it gives blacks even more of an impetus to circle the wagons. "I think there has probably been greater support for [him] because of the perception that some of the attacks that have been leveled against him have been racially motivated," adds Gillespie.
Still, nonwhites in general currently approve of Obama almost 30 percent less than blacks, so the president's black approval isn't just minorities blowing back against racism. As it turns out, and this may be hard for some people to admit, the paranoid conservatives might be right: Obama's race may be part of the reason he polls so well with blacks.
"I think we would be remiss to deny the fact that there is a certain ideal of racial pride in supporting the first African-American president," says Gillespie. "It's that these people have the opportunity to support a black man in ways they historically couldn't, and I think that does have an influence on how people perceive the president."
"What blacks are looking at is, does [Obama] care about the core issues that are important to them," says Sinclair-Chapman. "And then they give leeway on lots of other things. They may have some disagreements about details of policies, but they know he didn't come into office in the best of circumstances, and they're going to support him."
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.