President Obama says Americans feel worse about race relations not because relations are worse, but because we're talking about them more.
Obama offered that analysis during a year-ending NPR interview. In a 40-minute talk just before he left Washington for the holidays, he gave clues to his thinking about his final two years in office.
The president says he wanted 2014 to be a "breakthrough year," when the economy would decisively improve and the nation's toxic politics might improve too. Though the economy did grow, 2014 became another year of unexpected disasters and unplanned events. That surely contributed to the drop in Obama's approval ratings, and left the president with little power to prevent his party's loss of the Senate.
Of this year's unexpected events, some of the most difficult and dramatic surrounded two police killings of black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City. Yet in our talk on Dec. 18, the president interpreted the widespread debate over the killings as a sign of potential positive change:
Two days after the president spoke of that healthy debate, a gunman murdered two New York City police officers.
The day of the interview, however, there already was other evidence of division in the country.
Obama offered an essentially optimistic view that better data for the public and better training for police can improve their interactions.
He has assembled a task force to examine police and community relations, and said its members are "interested in solving a problem as opposed to simply stewing in the hopelessness of race relations in this country. And I'm convinced that we actually are going to see progress on this issue next year."
Some other race-related data, on voting patterns, presents a challenge to the president's party. Obama twice won election on the strength of an unprecedented minority vote, and the share of minorities in the electorate is growing. But a flip side to this trend can be seen with white voters.
The collapse of the white vote won't be inevitably fatal for the Democratic Party; in the 2016 presidential election, nonwhite voters are expected to make up an even larger share of the electorate than they did in 2012.
But the drop-off was disastrous in the low-turnout midterm elections of 2010 and 2014. In a Senate race in Georgia, for example, it was estimated that Democrats needed little more than 25 percent of the white vote to win, but they failed to get it. This is why Republicans now dominate Congress and most state legislatures.
Obama's larger sentiment — it would be better for America if both major parties were able to compete seriously for the votes of all major racial and ethnic groups — is shared by politicians in both parties. As 2014 draws to a close, that ideal is not yet reality.
This is the second installment of a three-part year-ending interview with President Obama. The first was on the upcoming Congress; the third focuses on his foreign policy.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Just before the holidays, we posed a question to President Obama.
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INSKEEP: Is the United States more racially divided than it was when you took office six years ago, Mr. President?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: No, I actually think that it's probably, in its day-to-day interactions, less racially divided. But I actually think that the issue has surfaced in a way that probably is healthy.
INSKEEP: That's what the president told us during a year-ending interview in the Oval Office. It has been a year of intense racial divisions. A police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, led to clashes in the streets. A death during an arrest in New York stirred widespread dismay.
The president spoke with us before two police officers were murdered in New York. We were sitting down as he was leaving for the holidays. But he did address this year's divisive events in an unusually frank discussion of race and politics. Those events left the nation's first black president working to explain why he thinks race relations are better.
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OBAMA: It's understandable the polls might say, you know, that race relations have gotten worse because when it's in the news and you see something like Ferguson or the Garner case in New York, then it attracts attention. But I assure you, from the perspective of African-Americans or Latinos in poor communities who have been dealing with this all their lives, they wouldn't suggest somehow that it's worse now than it was 10, 15 or 20 years ago.
INSKEEP: Well, let me mention a couple of data points that perhaps do not suggest it's worse, but suggest a broad gulf. One has to do with Ferguson, which you eluded to. There's a case where there was a grand jury investigation that was released. There were thousands of pages of testimony, people went around reading them. I certainly did. There was a lot of evidence - a lot of debate even - about the grand jury process. And in the end, the surveys showed that majorities of white people thought the grand jury was right not to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown. Majorities of African-Americans found the grand jury was wrong. How do you lead the country when people see the basic facts so profoundly differently?
OBAMA: That's not new, Steve. I mean...
INSKEEP: Not new, but how do you deal with it in your final two years?
OBAMA: Well, I think that the fact that there's a conversation about it and that there are tools out there that we know can make a difference in bridging those gaps of understanding and mistrust should make us optimistic.
INSKEEP: The president has been telling a story about a law passed while he was an Illinois state legislator. It required police to keep data on racial profiling. That information showed the race of drivers stopped by police. The idea was to give police reliable information so they could better understand what they were actually doing. Police stops of black motorists went down. This year, the president has appointed a task force to explore similar issues on a national level.
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OBAMA: I'm convinced that we actually are going to see progress on this issue next year.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about another data point that reflects on the Democratic Party that you will want to leave behind in a couple of years, and this is something that has changed in recent years. As everybody knows, the coalition that's elected you twice included huge minority participation, record minority participation. You had huge percentages of minority communities. The white vote for Democrats has gone down to rather dramatic levels, which suggests a political division between races that is different than it used to be.
OBAMA: Yeah, but, you know, data's funny, you know, you can - what's the saying? There are...
INSKEEP: Lies, damned lies and statistics.
OBAMA: ...Lies, damned lies and statistics, right? So when I was elected in '08, I actually did better among white voters in some jurisdictions than John Kerry did.
INSKEEP: And then 2012...
OBAMA: 2012, it might have dipped, but it was still on par with what had happened before. In the midterms, because of the nature of the electorate, it tends to exaggerate some of these racial differences. I guess my point being that I think it ebbs and flows in part given circumstances.
I do think that right now there are a lot of white, working-class voters who haven't seen enough progress economically in their own lives. And despite the work that we've done to try to strengthen the economy and address issues like child care or minimum wage or increasing manufacturing, that's not what they read about or hear about in the newspapers. They hear about an immigration debate or they hear about, you know, a debate surrounding Ferguson. And they think, I'm being left out, nobody seems to be thinking about how tough it is for me right now or I've been downscaled, I've lost my job, etc.
You know, part of my responsibility then is to communicate directly to those voters. And part of the Democratic Party's job is to communicate directly to those voters and say to them, you know what, we're fighting for you. And one of the best examples of this is the Affordable Care Act, which if you were just looking at the way it's been couched and characterized by the Republican Party, and in some cases by the news, the perception is somehow that this is largely something that is benefiting black and Hispanic and downscale voters.
Well, the truth of the matter is, is that a state like Kentucky, that doesn't have a massive black or Hispanic population, has been one of the strongest states. Mitch McConnell's state's one of the best states in using the Affordable Care Act to insure huge numbers of working-class, white voters. It's just they don't call it Obamacare; they call it something else. And so there's sometimes a gap in perceptions that we have to bridge.
I think there's a legitimate sense of loss, particularly among men who have seen manufacturing diminish. Construction has been in the tank. The jobs that are out there are not ones that are traditionally jobs that, you know, blue-collar men aspire to. And, you know, we've got to speak to those concerns.
Now, the flip side is, you know, nobody would be happier than me to see the Republican Party try to broaden its coalition. Immigration reform, by the way, was a great opportunity for the Republican Party to do so. The fact that I received 75 percent of the Latino vote and 70 percent of the Asian-American vote in the last two elections is something that the Republican Party should worry about because it's actually fixable for them.
INSKEEP: That's President Obama speaking just before the holidays in the Oval Office. It was an interview on radio and video, which you can find at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.