Barack Obama has two chances to win the presidency, one more farfetched than the other. He might enlarge his impressive work in the Rocky Mountain states and move four or five of them out of the Republican column to join the fixed big-state Democratic electoral base, or else he can subdue the prejudices of white rural voters across the South and upper Midwest and persuade them to vote their pocketbooks.
Even to an old denizen of the Jim Crow South the second looks like the better prospect, and that is what Obama set out to do this week by tethering John McCain to the economic policies of George W. Bush, which have been particularly ruinous to the working-class voters of the South and Midwest. It ought not to be too hard since McCain has found not a single fault with the worst economic performance of any president since Herbert Hoover.
The common wisdom is that the transformation has already happened. Frank Rich and Paul Krugman, the liberal columnists of The New York Times, write of a post-racial, post-partisan, post-boomer America where whites everywhere have finally sublimated their fears of African-Americans. Krugman, chronicling the “deracialization” of America this week, credited Bill Clinton with that remarkable achievement. Urban violence declined precipitously in the 1990s, ending white fears of angry black men, and Clinton in 1996 removed the last urban legend, the welfare queen, by signing the welfare reform law, thus ending aid to families with dependent children as it was known and taking that old bugbear, the welfare Cadillac, out of the political lexicon.
But Krugman and Rich have been too long in the cloisters of Princeton and Times Square offices. If they studied the primary returns they would see that Hillary Clinton shut out Obama in virtually every rural and small-town precinct from Pennsylvania to New Mexico. The story line was that she connected with working-class and rural voters and he didn't, but Obama's message was if anything marginally better attuned to blue-collar people than hers, with the exception of his somewhat weaker health-care plan. Hillary Clinton of Wellesley and Yale as a tribune of the haybinders and horny-handed sons of toil is still a discordant image. No, it was more her color than her populism that carried the countryside by big margins.
It is true that Obama has a more hopeful, transcendent message and style than, say, Rev. Jesse Jackson. The optimism and the absence of bitterness and harangue could be as inclusive as Obama seeks it to be. But it will take a remarkable alchemy in the minds of millions of white voters to raise self-interest over their old whims.
The price of gasoline and diesel alone might do it. No failing of the Bush administration has been so wrenching to country life as fuel costs that are forcing lifestyle changes. Bush and McCain can say that oil prices are governed by forces outside the government's control, but the Iraq war, a reckless foreign policy and energy policies that catered to the big energy companies are as responsible for the fuel prices as rising global demand. Obama has to persuade people of that connection.
There is strong evidence that it is sinking in that Bush and Republican governance has made life less tolerable for working families even if you have a job and are not in immediate peril of losing it. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of middle-income and poor people believe a Democrat will be more likely to improve their economic situation.
A couple of economists, David Madland and Jacob Pawlak, did a remarkable study this month for the Center for American Progress comparing the economic performances of George W. Bush and Herbert Hoover, the last Republican who drove country people to the Democratic Party in droves. They based their judgments on the statistical record of employment, foreclosures and income inequality. Nothing yet compares with the Great Depression brought on by the heedless policies of Hoover, but Madland and Pawlak found the administrations amazingly congruent and Hoover sometimes sullied by comparison to Bush.
Hoover is the only president since the 18th century to have presided over a net decline in jobs, but Bush has the worst job-creating record of any other president in more than a century. Jobs grew at a pace of 2 to 4 percent under other administrations — Clinton's record was easily the best — but Bush as of May was creating jobs at the pace of half of one percent a year. It could be close to zero by term's end.
Since Bush took office and implemented the first part of his economic plan, a big tax cut for the rich, the average income of Americans has declined 1 percent. It declined much more under Hoover, but the incomes of every income group declined. Under Bush, the incomes of the top 10 percent of taxpayers rose dramatically while declining for everyone else. It is the only time that has happened under a president since the government started keeping records in 1917.
McCain embraces all the Bush economic policies, and he intends to do more, starting next year with a big cut in tax rates for corporations, which have enjoyed stunning prosperity. Obama promises a tax cut for the middle class, those white rural voters, and to allow a tax increase for the rich and for corporations that was programmed by Bush and the Republican Congress in 2001 and 2003 to take effect as they planned.
Obama is a politician of uncanny ability. If he can vanquish prejudice by appeals to the pocketbook he will have passed the supreme test.