Obama Coming Up Short With White Voters

First African American president has not bridged the country's racial divide.

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The racial gap in the presidential campaign is growing wider, according to the polls, and this could be a sign that, unfortunately, national unity remains a long way off and racial tensions may still be simmering below the surface of American life.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney has a huge lead over President Obama among white voters, while Obama has a huge lead over Romney among African American and Latino voters, whose percentage of the national population is increasing. This suggests a degree of racial polarization that wasn't anticipated four years ago when the country elected its first African American president on a platform of hope, change and conciliation. And it provides an insight into our divided electorate that hasn't been adequately discussed as Election Day approaches. 

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Tbe latest Washington Post/ABC News tracking poll finds Romney leading Obama among white voters, 60 per cent to 37, while Obama wins 79 per cent of non-white voters. Obama's support among these minorities was about the same in 2008, but his support among whites has declined from 43 per cent four years ago. 

But it's not just that Obama is black and Romney is white. Apparently, it's also ideological. No Democratic nominee has won a majority of white voters since President Lyndon Johnson overwhelmed Republican challenger Barry Goldwater in his 1964 landslide. All of this deserves more examination.

Pollsters say Obama's support among whites dropped substantially after his weak performance in the first presidential debate with Romney in early October. The president's support declined most dramatically among white men, among whites without college degrees, and among white independents. This was apparently because Obama didn't make an effective case that he would do better in creating jobs and strengthening the economy in a second term.

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African Americans and Latinos are also concerned about the economy, but other factors have persuaded them to stay with Obama, including a sense that Romney has little interest in their problems.

But there is a major exception: Obama is doing better among white voters in the key battleground state of Ohio than he is nationally, partly because he supported a locally important auto-industry bailout by the government and Romney opposed it. Obama trails Romney by only six percentage points among whites in Ohio, according to a Time Magazine poll.

When I interviewed Obama for my 2011 book "Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House," I asked him how he deals with black and white issues as the first African American president. He said he tries to run a race-neutral administration, and he added that his policies would benefit everyone regardless of their race. "I actually believe that right now the same things that would most help African Americans are the same things that would help society at large," he told me. He was talking about his programs to improve education, overhaul health care, and stimulate the economy, among other initiatives.

My assessment is that Obama has indeed tried to avoid being perceived as "the black president" and has generally sought to steer clear of divisive racial issues. His aides say he is doing his best to appeal to everyone in the campaign. If that's truly the case, it hasn't worked.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of five books, including most recently, "Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House." He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com.