The city president

November 5 2008

Lance Knobel on the suburban and small-town origins of US presidents, going back to William Howard Taft. Why stop at Taft? He was the first urban president you come to before Obama, a Chicagoan. He was from Cincinnati. Teddy Roosevelt was a New Yorker. One could go further back, but America was not strongly urban before the Civil War.

Most people I know in the UK were convinced that Obama could never win because he appealed only to the urban part of the electorate. Only the two coasts, therefore, would vote for him. As if there were no towns in the midwest. (Did much of rural America vote for Obama?) They really meant that Americans would never vote for a black president. I was persuaded by those people for a time. This was a common European view.

They asked, with irritation, why he was always called black when he could just as accurately be called white. The answer is that he would have been black for the purposes of recent American apartheid. This is why black Americans were moved when he won. There was also some silly European sentimentality about this.

They said that the polls reflected lies in the way they were answered. Tom Friedman’s reply to that point turns it on its head and at least takes it away from race. The Obama effect, among other things, was “white conservatives telling the guys in the men’s grill at the country club that they were voting for John McCain, but then quietly going into the booth and voting for Obama, even though they knew it would mean higher taxes. Why? Some did it because they sensed how inspired and hopeful their kids were about an Obama presidency, and they not only didn’t want to dash those hopes, they secretly wanted to share them.”

5 Responses to “The city president”

  1. Lance Knobel Says:

    Tom Friedman is wrong yet again. The most interesting thing about the polls isn’t that there was no Bradley Effect or no reverse-Bradley Effect. It’s that in almost every state the polls were staggeringly accurate.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    He continues by email (and see my Friedman post):

    He was so spectacularly wrong on Iraq, and then persisted in being wrong (the Friedman Unit) that it’s hard to overlook his record. On many other things, no he’s not necessarily wrong. He’s a highly skilled codifier of Conventional Wisdom, and as a result the purveyors of CW — notably the Davos crowd — sing his praises to the high rafters. Wherever there are greys, Tom finds black and white. Very digestible.

    That said, he’s largely on the side of the angels in his latest, green incarnation. So I’m glad at the moment that he is influential. I didn’t feel that way about Iraq or about his cheerleading for a very naive, American version of globalization.

    On your rural question, there were great charts in today’s NY Times. Here are your stats:

    11% of voters came from places with a population of more than 500k. Obama won this group 70% to 28%.
    19% from places with 50-500k. Obama won them 59/39.
    49% from suburbs. Obama won 50/48.
    7% from places with 10-50k. McCain won 53/45.
    14% from rural areas. McCain won 53/45.

    Not sure how suburbs and rural areas are defined since they could obviously also fit in the population brackets.

  3. lorvena Says:

    There is no ‘recent American apartheid’ and in the few cases where one might venture it is at the instigation of the minority, Chinatown and Harlem come to mind. Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking in stereotypes.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    I don’t know what you mean. … And 1964 is recent.

  5. richard Says:

    “suburbs” is a troubling category in American discourse: if I weren’t already working on something else entirely, I might go and study its usage. It seems principally to be a social category, albeit one with a great variety of analytical meanings, based on housing density, construction rules and the like. It also seems to connote disapprobation of a vague sort, while “middle class” is vaguely respectable.

    I live 10 mile from the nearest, quite small, town, in what surely counts as a rural area, but in a little suburban-style subdivision. I think our language for understanding human environment is lagging behind development.

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