Opinion: The Obama placebo effect

Bill Johnson

Ex-President Barack Obama has again taken center stage to warn Americans that “our democracy is at stake.” Leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, he’s on the stump citing deepening racial and social divisions as reasons to bring back “some semblance of sanity to our politics.”

His message is a thinly veiled attack on the “deplorables” responsible for the election of President Donald Trump. Obama knows large segments of the black voting population are sensitive, indeed vulnerable to such impassioned speech. He as his Democratic Party cohorts also believe the potential political power of this biennial tactic is necessary to stimulate their “natural” constituencies.

Former President Barack Obama speaks as he campaigns in support of California congressional candidates, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in Anaheim, Calif.

This tired maneuver, however, may come with additional risks this election cycle. In fact, a case can be made that the Party of Obama has forfeited any legitimate right to continued black loyalty.

Since black Americans walked away from the party of Abraham Lincoln in the late 1930s, the Democratic Party has held their vote in a chokehold. Dems, for example, routinely receive around 90-percent of black votes in state and national elections. They turned out strong for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. Expectations were high that this “horse of a different color” would usher in a new era of black empowerment and unprecedented progress.

Other than electing the first president that shared their immutable characteristics, nothing changed. When Obama left office, more than a quarter of the black population was deeply enmeshed in poverty. Welfare rolls were bloated. Between2009 and 2014,  incomes fell more for blacks than any other racial or ethnic group. Unemployment remained more than two times that of whites and the labor force participation rate was the lowest ever.

The economy did stabilize under Obama, but growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) never rose above an anemic 2.6-percent.

Nonetheless, black Americans still hold Obama in high regard. But this may be a reflection of how they were intoxicated by the Obama persona than with progress under the Obama presidency. Despite being mesmerized by “hope and change” rhetoric, the most Obama’s devotees received for their unquestioned affection was a sense of pride. Call it the Obama Placebo Effect.

Unable to cash Democratic Party promises at the political bank, blacks should question whether they still have a place in the party that has failed them for decades. By contrast, Trump legitimately makes the case that he has done more for black economic progress in 20 months than Obama did in eight years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black unemployment is below six-percent for the first time – a new record. Black labor force participation is up, and the number of black Americans with a job has risen more than a half million from last year.

Welfare rolls and food stamps recipients are on the decline; black wages and incomes are on an upward trend. Additionally, consumer and investor confidence is high and the GDP is well above four-percent. 

Campaigns shouldn’t be about racial accommodation. I’m of the mind that the majority of Americans understand that a common thread that links all voters is the availability of  jobs and economic opportunity. 

So there may be more “at stake” in November than Obama has bargained for. Democrats will walk a tightrope trying to get blacks to re-up for their new version of plantation politics. They must also avoid feeding white voter “anxiety” from an overdose of hyper-social justice themes.

Don’t expect massive black defections to the GOP. But those struggling with whether to cast a vote for Trump-supported candidates should recall the ever-echoing utterance of Bill Clinton’s top strategist during the 1992 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush. In the words of James Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Bill Johnson is CEO of the Bill Johnson group.