“We have achieved historic turnout in 2008 and 2012, especially in the African-American community,” President Obama told the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation last weekend. “I will consider it a personal insult and an insult to my legacy if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election. You want to give me a good send-off? Go vote.” He didn’t need to say for whom.
You might think that Obama would want to leave himself out of it. He’s not running, after all. You might think that he would want to remind black voters why Hillary Clinton is such a fabulous candidate that they can’t miss the opportunity to vote for her, especially since she’ll preserve his policies. Then again, given that blacks have made little economic progress during the Obama years, that approach probably wouldn’t work—as Clinton herself knows, since she divides her time between pledging to continue Obama’s policies and promising to reach out to all the Americans who have been left behind over the last eight years. That’s a tough wire to straddle even for a nimble politician, and Clinton isn’t nimble.
Obama’s urgent appeal to black voters comes just as a Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California poll shows Clinton losing 16.5 points in one week to Donald Trump among blacks. That drop seems too dramatic to be believed, and the poll might be an outlier. In any scenario, Clinton will win the black vote by a huge margin. But the worry for Democrats is that the margin will shrink, and that black-voter turnout will wane, potentially moving close swing states into the Republican column.
So what does Obama have to fall back on? His old standby of messianic persuasion, with a twist: unlike in 2008, when he set himself up as a savior, he now warns his supporters not to let the savior down. Self-respecting Americans ought to be disgusted by such royalist remarks from a public officeholder, let alone a president. But after taking calls on his radio show from black listeners who “could not bear to insult President Obama,” according to the New York Times, Al Sharpton was heartened. “Making not voting synonymous with an insult to the president is a shot in the arm,” he said.
One way of looking at Obama’s warning is that it suggests political panic. The last several weeks have seen Clinton’s lead in the polls nearly evaporate. Odds are, Clinton still wins, but in a political year like this one, you’re better off keeping your money in your pocket. Clinton is a dreadful candidate whom even many on the Left see as having no core beliefs but her own ambition. Fouled by scandal but pristine of achievement, she’s about as inspiring as death and taxes. No wonder her campaign is signaling to the bullpen for the closer, Obama.
Obama’s warning also illustrates the sense of entitlement, even ownership, that Democratic candidates have long felt regarding black voters, whom they regard as “theirs.” Democrats generally operate with no fear that such overt paternalism will prompt a backlash. Not even Al Gore, talking in kindergarten locutions to black audiences, or Hillary Clinton, exclaiming “I don’t feel noways tired” in a black church, caught much guff for the transparent posturing that would have exposed Republican politicians to weeks of media ridicule. Obama, of course, has a genuine connection with black Americans that goes well beyond such canned routines. He can even come right out and tell them, as he did Saturday night, that by virtue of their race, there is only one acceptable way to vote. Never mind what contempt this suggests for their ability to make up their own minds.
Finally, Obama’s words offer another exhibit of his invincible self-involvement. For years, he has injected himself into political events, most infamously, perhaps, after the death of Trayvon Martin. And now he’s even told some voters that their own deliberations about the future, as expressed in their vote in November, will be an affront to him if they reflect a conclusion different from his own.
Time will tell whether Obama’s racial appeal helps Democrats pull another tired old liberal warhorse across the finish line. One can hope that around the country, some black voters are saying to themselves, “Mr. President, as a freethinking American, I take your warning as a personal insult.” That’s precisely what it is.
Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images