Obama Says Race May Blunt Poll Standing in Interview

President Barack Obama said racial tensions may partially explain his declining popularity among white voters, according to a story in the New Yorker magazine this week.

“There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president,” Obama said in the article by David Remnick, which was posted on the publication’s website yesterday and appears in the magazine’s Jan. 27 edition.

“Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black president,” Obama said in his most direct comments on how race has affected his political standing since he’s been in office.

In a series of interviews with the New Yorker, Obama reflected on a range of issues including head injuries in professional football, the legalization of marijuana in some states as well as his place in history. As he prepares for his State of the Union address scheduled for Jan. 28, the president is seeking to overcome recent controversies such as the troubled rollout of health-insurance expansion and revelations that the National Security Agency has gathered personal mobile phone data.

Gallup Poll

Obama’s approval rating among all voters is 39 percent and his disapproval rating is 53 percent, according to a Gallup Poll conducted Jan. 14-16. In the 2012 presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney won 59 percent of the white vote, compared with Obama’s 39 percent, according to exit polling by a consortium of major news outlets. Obama won 43 percent of the white vote in 2008 against 55 percent for opponent John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona.

The vast majority of Asian, Latino and black voters supported Obama in 2012, the polling showed.

“The truth of the matter is, he gets overwhelmingly elected” even without white votes, Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in a phone interview.

Hess said the controversy over Obama’s health-care law is primarily responsible for the decline in the president’s poll numbers. He left “lots of loose ends and as an administrator was very inattentive to them,” Hess said.

“Poll after poll makes it very clear that Obamacare and other job-killing policies are the reason” for the president’s decline in popularity, Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer said in a phone interview yesterday.

Football Injuries

The almost 17,000-word New Yorker story goes beyond policy matters, showing Obama’s views on a variety of contentious topics such as the dangers of playing professional football, which has been the subject of media scrutiny over head injuries.

“I would not let my son play pro football,” the article quotes Obama, the father of two daughters, as saying. When asked how those dangers squared with his enjoyment of the game as a spectator, Obama said professional players are aware of the inherent risk in playing a full-contact sport.

“They know what they’re buying into,” Obama said. “It is no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”

Obama, who has acknowledged smoking marijuana as a youth, said he didn’t think the drug is “more dangerous than alcohol,” according to the New Yorker. He also said he told his daughters that it’s “a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy.”

Marijuana Laws

Marijuana possession and sale remains illegal under federal law. In August, the U.S. Justice Department said it wouldn’t challenge laws legalizing the drug in Washington state and Colorado, provided the states prevent out-of-state distribution, access to minors and drugged driving, among other restrictions.

Obama said there’s an imbalance in enforcement of laws prohibiting marijuana, Remnick reported.

“Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” Obama said in the article. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.”

Obama also touched on the issue of U.S. surveillance programs, which have created rifts among the government and its allies in Europe. He acknowledged that reports of the programs, including allegations that the government tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, had created a “breach of trust,” Remnick reported.

Obama said he also assumes others are trying to spy on him, and for this reason he doesn’t have a phone, according to the New Yorker.

‘Casablanca’ Effect

“There are European governments that we know spy on us, and there is a little bit of Claude Rains in ‘Casablanca’ -- shocked that gambling is going on,” the magazine quoted him as saying, referring to the actor who played the corrupt police captain Louis Renault in the 1942 movie.

Obama told Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor and the author of the 2011 book “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama,” that he is beginning to look at his legacy.

“One of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate more as president is you are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Wingfield in Washington at bwingfield3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David Ellis at dellis5@bloomberg.net

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