On Race, Obama Treads With Caution

Mitt Romney's campaign released a new Web video Tuesday hammering President Obama on changes to welfare policy. (National Journal)

Is Mitt Romney playing the race card on welfare reform? It was a softball question for three Democratic pollsters sitting on a National Journal panel hours before the Democratic National Convention opened Tuesday.

"Yes," replied Celinda Lake.

"Yes," said Margie Omero.

"Yes," echoed John Anzalone.

But for Joel Benenson, President Obama's chief pollster, the question was fraught with political complication. His boss has long been leery of the debate over voters' racial prejudices.

"No," Benenson replied bluntly when asked at the NJ event whether Romney is winning over white voters with an indisputably inaccurate ad accusing Obama of weakening welfare-to-work laws. Is Romney playing the race card? "Have to ask the Romney campaign if they are doing that," Benenson said in an interview before the panel discussion among Lake, Omero, and Anzalone.

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On the sidelines of last week's GOP convention, Romney adviser Ron Kaufman said the campaign was not exploiting racial tensions "“ and accused a reporter who made the claim of playing the so-called race card. (Disclosure: A co-author of this article interviewed both Kaufman and Benenson).

Kaufman's remark sparked a conversation about how far Romney would go to drive down Obama's already low appeal among white non-college educated voters.

Tuesday's exchange with Benenson raises a question: Why doesn't Obama want to say race is an issue in this election?

Lake, one of the three Democratic pollsters, likened Obama's predicament to the Catch 22 a woman confronts when facing discrimination: It's fine and even "powerful" if somebody speaks up on the woman's behalf, Lake said, but the woman herself can't cry foul or she will be dismissed as a whiner. "They say," Lake said, mockingly, "the girls are calling sexism."

Donna Brazile, a leading Democratic strategist who specializes in courting minority voters, said Obama has no choice but to turn the other cheek. He doesn't want to be accused of playing racial politics himself.

"(Obama and his team) are making the right decision not to "˜take the bait,''' Brazile said in an email exchange.  "We have seen time and time again that our short-lived conversations on race are both superficial and disingenuous."

On that, Benenson would agree with Brazile and other Democrats. But he differs from much of the rest of the political community on whether Romney is exploiting racial tensions. Not only does virtually every Democratic strategist believe the GOP nominee is playing the race card, so do some GOP operatives "“ including some in Romney's own campaign.

According to senior GOP strategists who have worked both for President Bush and Romney, internal GOP polling and focus groups offer convincing evidence that the welfare ad is hurting Obama.  Also, the welfare issue, generally speaking, triggers anger in white blue-collar voters that is easily directed toward Democrats.

Internal data from both parties suggest that some white voters who had backed Obama have moved to Romney in part because of the ad, which plays on inaccurate and divisive racial stereotypes about welfare reform and race. These particular white voters tend to inaccurately view welfare as an entitlement primarily benefiting minorities, the data suggests.

Romney's chief advertising strategist Ashley O'Connor said last week it was their most effective TV spot.

Despite Benenson's statement that the welfare ad had no effect, Obama quickly countered with an ad featuring former President Clinton, who signed the welfare-to-work legislation in the 1990s and vouched for Obama's approach.

For as long as Obama has been in national politics, Benenson has disputed polls that suggest a link between white voters' views about race and Obama's standing.

One of the most respected pollsters in politics, Benenson said he believes that white voters who are motivated by race are already anti-Obama voters, and that elections turn on bigger concerns "“ "hope and change" in 2008, the economy now.

Whether it's a matter of messaging or fear of backlash, it is indisputable that Obama has a history of talking about race selectively and only on his own terms.

In 2008, race surfaced as an issue during the primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Obama, in part because of the emergence during the heat of their battle of television clips of sermons by Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright. Former President Clinton fed the narrative with comments that seemed racially tinged.

Stumping for his wife, Clinton compared Obama's big victory in the South Carolina primary to that of Jesse Jackson, who ran for president in 1984 and 1988 but did not attract large national support. Also during the campaign, he described Obama's record as a "fairy tale." The comments led some to accuse Clinton of being dismissive of Obama and trying to marginalize him.

In keeping with his preference for discussing race on his own terms, Obama reacted to the Wright controversy by delivering a nuanced speech on race in March 2008 that was well received and helped to neutralize his vulnerability on the pastor's comments.

Obama moved on from the issue after the speech. In the one brief flare-up of the race issue during the general election campaign, GOP nominee John McCain's campaign accused Obama of exploiting racial tensions after the Democratic candidate warned supporters that Republicans might use his race against him. "They're going to try to make you afraid of me. He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?" Obama told a fundraiser in the summer of 2008.

The flap was short-lived. Both the Obama and McCain camps quickly put the issue behind them and it was not raised again by either candidate.

In July 2009, Obama waded into controversy at a White House news conference when he accused police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of having acted "stupidly" in the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, a black Harvard professor. Gates was mistaken for a burglar when he tried to enter his own home.

And after Vice President Joe Biden told a black audience this summer that Republican policies would "put y'all back in chains," Obama defended the vice president, saying he was trying to make a point about financial regulation but he also called the phrasing a "distraction" from other issues in the campaign.

Paula McClain, a professor of political science at Duke University, said discussing race is a "double-edged sword" for Obama. On the one hand, he said, many African Americans would like to hear Obama talk more of the struggles they and other minorities face. But she said that Obama was being pragmatic in not emphasizing an issue that is sensitive in American politics.

"I think he's straddling that racial rail quite well," McClain said.