The latest poll about the events in Ferguson comes from CBS and the New York Times, and you will not be surprised to learn that evaluations of President Obama’s performance on this issue, like evaluations of his performance on every issue, are divided along racial lines:
Forty-one percent of Americans are satisfied with how the president is responding to the situation in Ferguson, while 34 percent are dissatisfied. Twenty-five percent don’t have an opinion.
African-Americans, who have been strong supporters of Mr. Obama, are satisfied with his response (60 percent), compared to just 35 percent of whites. Partisanship also plays a role: Republicans are more critical of the president than Democrats.
The important context to keep in mind for these figures is that Obama hasn’t actually done much of anything to either be pleased or displeased about. His statements on the subject have been designed to offend no one, trying to touch every possible perspective — there’s no excuse for violence, but people’s First Amendment rights have to be respected, but we don’t want to see excessive force by the police, but attacking the police is wrong, etc.
You’d think the people who would logically be dissatisfied with the President’s response are those who think he should be doing more. And that would mean mostly Democrats and African-Americans. But that’s not what’s happening. Here are some internals from the CBS/NYT poll:
While they don’t break the numbers out by race and partisanship simultaneously, given what’s there, it’s a good bet that most of the whites who say they’re dissatisfied with the president’s response are Republicans, while most of the whites who say they’re satisfied are Democrats.
When the president isn’t doing much that they can see, people will just use their partisan biases to make an evaluation: if you’re a Democrat you’ll say he’s doing the right thing, and if you’re a Republican you’ll say he’s doing the wrong thing. It’s long been the case that partisanship even determines people’s perceptions of what ought to be objective facts. And when it comes to Obama, opinions are more polarized than ever. In the latest Gallup poll, 80 percent of Democrats approve of the job he’s doing, but only 7 percent of Republicans agree. His approval among whites is 30 percent, while his approval among nonwhites is 66 percent.
All these numbers provide more evidence for what I argued yesterday, that much as many liberals and African-Americans would like President Obama to speak out strongly on the racial implications of everything that has happened in Ferguson, doing so would be unlikely to change much for the better. Speechmaking and image management can sometimes make a difference, but not this time.
Obama has responded to the crisis in an anodyne way, not mentioning race at all, and Republicans overwhelmingly disapprove of his response anyway. So just imagine what would happen if he were to candidly address the racial implications of the Ferguson crisis. The backlash would likely be ferocious.
As it is, the ultimate meaning of these events will be determined not by views of Obama, but by whether the public’s perspective on race and policing is enhanced and altered over the long term, and whether the public reaction helps bring about any policy response that might actually help to alleviate the problems this crisis has highlighted. Obama could certainly make the current controversy worse, but there’s little he can do to make it better. And he seems to understand that.