Does Obama Need White People?

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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U.S. President Barack Obama's approval rating has plummeted according to the latest Washington Post/ABC poll. Only 42 percent of respondents approve of the way the president is handling his job, with 55 percent expressing disapproval.

The poll is ugly for Obama. But it's pretty ugly for the U.S., too. Views on the president expressed by whites and nonwhites areprecisely inverted. Whites disapprove of Obama's performance by 66-to-31. Nonwhites -- Hispanics, blacks, Asians -- approve 66-to-32.

That's a provocative snapshot. It also has broader implications.

In the 2000 presidential race, Republican George W. Bush narrowly defeated Democrat Al Gore by three percentage points in the swing state of Missouri while crushing Gore in North Carolina (56 to 43) and winning easily in Virginia (52 to 44).

Over time, Missouri has grown more Republican, and North Carolina and Virginia have become hotly contested. Mitt Romney took North Carolina, which Obama had won in 2008, by 51-to-48. Obama won Virginia by a similar margin. "The biggest difference between Virginia and North Carolina and Missouri is those states continue to have large and growing minority populations and tech-based growth," Missouri Democratic Party chairman Roy Temple told me. "Missouri is staying the same."

Missouri looks like the American past. North Carolina and Virginia look like the future. The white share of Missouri's population, where Hispanics and Asians are few, dropped only about three percentage points from 2000 to 2010, to 80.6 percent. The white share of North Carolina's population fell almost six percentage points over the same time, from 70.2 percent to 64.7 percent. In Virginia, the drop was slightly steeper, from 70.2 percent to 64.1 percent. (Democrat Terry McAuliffe won Virginia's gubernatorial election with 36 percent of the white vote earlier this month.) Whites make up about 63 percent of the overall U.S. population -- a whopping 17 percentage points fewer than in Missouri.

Right now may be the nadir of Obamacare; According to the Washington Post/ABC poll, Americans overall oppose it by 57-to-40. But even in this uncertain hour, nonwhites support the law 54-to-42. It's possible that Obama -- and Obamacare -- will go still lower in the approval charts. But neither is likely to approach President George W. Bush's low register, which, according to Gallup, dipped into the high 20s at the end of his administration.

Obama doesn't need majority support from whites to succeed; he just needs enough. He comfortably won reelection in 2012 with 39 percent of the white vote. As long as many nonwhites perceive the Republican Party as an opposition force, Obama will have political buoyancy. And his health-care reform will find support -- almost certainly enough to see it through.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Frank Wilkinson at