Obamaphobia: What's Really Behind It?

It may have more to do with non-policy sources

A Nashville man was convicted of ramming his SUV into a car purely because it had an Obama sticker on the bumper. A colleague of my wife's endured a barrage of insults from men in a pickup truck on Pellissippi Parkway.

No president since the Civil War was so hated so much from his inauguration. Even before he was inaugurated, people were complaining to me about his being elected, as if I could offer some solution.

I have a suspicion that Obama isn't being judged just on what he's actually done, or even what he's actually said he wants to do. Not on the government bailouts, a continuation of Bush policy, during a major economic crisis already in progress, to throw a lifeline to capitalism. How Obama can be labeled a socialist by bailing out Wall Street and Detroit, the capitals of capitalism, bewilders real socialists everywhere. Another crash is what real socialists have predicted and dreamed of since the days of Eugene Debs. And maybe Obama spoiled it.

Is it the recession? Unemployment's worse than when Obama took office, true, but the Dow's about 3,000 points higher. That's what cynical liberals used to call a Republican Recovery.

Health-care reform? As finally passed, it's a patchy and conservative shadow of what Harry Truman was pushing in 1945—and comparable to what Teddy Roosevelt proposed in 1912. And hardly the public-option health-care plan Obama himself promised to cheering crowds during the campaign.

Is it the fact that he hasn't yet closed Guantánamo, criticized as an unprecedented and unconstitutional oddity in our justice system? Or that he's backed off some of his claims of pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan? Or his surprise pro-drilling environmental policy? My disappointed liberal friends call Obama "Bush Lite."

By any standard you want to measure him, Obama, the president, is much more conservative than Obama, the candidate, whom American voters elected by a bigger margin than any president in 20 years. And we hate him.

Especially us white Southerners. Polls suggest he's more disliked in Tennessee than in most other states. It's not surprising that some jump to the conclusion that racism is behind it. As a 10th-generation white Southerner, that charge bothers me.

The voting patterns of 2008 are unnerving. The charismatic Obama was much more popular with Americans in general than the stodgy, awkward John Kerry had been, four years earlier. The only demographic group less likely to vote for Obama than they were to vote for Kerry was white Southerners. The only geographic part of the country where Democrats overall didn't vote in bigger numbers for Obama than they did for Kerry was a band of the mid-South that included Tennessee. Maybe there are other explanations, but this is the region where white Southerners' preferences aren't balanced by a large black electorate.

I don't doubt that white Southerners are prejudiced against Obama. Some are prejudiced against him because he's black; a few older folks have told me they are. But most, I suspect, may be prejudiced for other reasons. Conservative white Southerners might have been okay with a black president if his name were Colin Powell.

White Southerners have something in common besides a heritage of racial presumptions—besides the fact that we were unwilling, 47 years ago, to sit in the same movie theater as anyone who looked like Barack Obama. White Southerners resist most sorts of change, racial and not. It may be hard to remember that Southerners were once very slow to accept other Northern imports like football and automobiles.

Perhaps we're also less likely to be willing to submit to a leader who doesn't pass all the old-fashioned qualifications.

Obama isn't just the first black president. He's different in lots of other ways, whether they seem overtly relevant to his job performance or not. He's the first president in U.S. history with an obviously non-European name. He's the first son of an immigrant to be elected president since 1832; Andrew Jackson was the last one. He's the only president in U.S. history with a parent who didn't settle in America. He's the first president in U.S. history whose grandparents belonged to a non-Christian faith. He's the first president in U.S. history who wasn't born in the continental United States, those represented in the 48 stars on flags during World War II. Thousands of white Southerners are old enough to remember when Hawaii wasn't even a state. Maybe we're still getting used to the idea.

And I suspect many Americans, and especially Southerners, resent him for this reason: If you survey the men we've elected to the presidency over the last 150 years, those elected to office tend to be people with either several years experience legislating in U.S. Congress, major administrative experience as governor of a state, or national experience as a member of a presidential cabinet. The only exceptions we've made are men with a record of supreme military leadership.

Of all sorts of Americans, I suspect, Southerners are the ones most interested in people paying their dues. We resent Johnnies Come Lately, who are likely to strike us as arrogant. When the South picked its own president—to lead a nation opposing the U.S.—they picked a guy who was a former officer in the U.S. Army, a former U.S. congressman, a former U.S. senator, and a former U.S cabinet member. Jefferson Davis was, perhaps ironically, the definitive Washington insider.

In terms of these traditional qualifications for the presidency, when he was inaugurated last year, Obama was arguably the least experienced commander in chief since maybe Chester A. Arthur, who was never actually elected president. That fact has probably hurt him in practical ways. He hasn't learned how to slap backs like Bill Clinton or LBJ, whose liberal changes were more sweeping than Obama's. And few in Washington owe him any favors.

A final prejudice may be personal. No Democratic president in history has ever had the leisure to so fully ignore the Southern vote and still get elected. That's hard to get over.