In the latest NY Times/CBS News poll, I think one number has been over looked. Michelle Obama has a stunningly low approval rating with white people. Only 24% of white Americans have a favorable view of her.
That's George Bush-like numbers. That's almost in Dick Cheney territory. I don't get it. What did she ever do to anybody?
She seems like an exemplary wife and mother. She is a hard working and accomplished American. What is it about her that is so off-putting to white Americans? I am sincerely puzzled.
I have a terrible answer. It's an answer I can't quite believe is true -- and I don't want to believe is true. But I don't see a reasonable alternative explanation. Racism.
I hope I'm wrong. But I can't see what else it could be. What in the world is wrong with her? Absolutely nothing. Strong, smart, likeable, caring. Maybe she's too strong. I am sure there are people out there who want women who are less vocal. This might be the same crowd who hated Hillary Clinton.
And, of course, there are a variety of factors that go into any phenomenon like this. There are also the people who are offended by her out of context comments on how this is the first time she's proud of her country. That seems to make people really mad. Though they didn't seem that angered when John McCain made very similar comments.
Do we honestly believe that most Americans would question Cindy McCain's patriotism if she said the same exact thing as Michelle Obama? I think no one would have even noticed it. You can't question Cindy McCain's patriotism -- she's white, blond and has blue eyes. Obviously, she's a patriotic American. If you think that doesn't make a difference in people's perception, you're crazy or not being honest with yourself.
By the way, Barack Obama didn't do that much better with white folks, which is also disconcerting. He only had a 30% approval rating. But I get that. He's running for president and there are many things you can legitimately like or dislike about any candidate. And it's perfectly reasonable to believe that approval rating is connected to his stance on the issues. But candidates' wives tend to do better than the candidate. They don't have as much political baggage and it's hard to say you don't like someone's wife for what appears to be no apparent reason. I haven't seen the last numbers on it, but I'd be surprised if Laura Bush isn't doubling her husband in popularity.
Even if you were to grant all of the arguments against Michelle, it still wouldn't explain a popularity rating in line with George W. Bush. How could she be less popular than the most unpopular president in US history? That doesn't make any sense.
I think America needs to look in the mirror and figure out what its problem is. I honestly can't see anything wrong with Michelle Obama. Some might consider me biased, but I'm trying to look at this thing objectively. I understood why Hillary Clinton's ambition rubbed people the wrong way (even if I didn't agree with that sentiment). I understood why some didn't like Teresa Heinz Kerry, because she was eccentric, hard-charging and had an accent. None of these reasons are legitimate, but I get them. With Michelle Obama, there is so little to legitimately, or illegitimately, dislike. That's why I'm left with the main explanation of race.
We need to try to come to terms with the prejudice that I think is lurking beneath the surface. I'm not sure people even recognize that they dislike Michelle Obama. I think it's something more instinctual than rational. That instinct is what we need to explore. Because I don't think this is her problem, I think it's our problem. To paraphrase George Costanza, it's not her, it's us.
IMPORTANT UPDATE -- As a number of you have pointed out in the comments below, the way The New York Times framed this poll was very misleading. They left out the number of people who said they were "Undecided" (17%) or "Haven't Heard Enough" (38%) about Michelle Obama. That makes a world of difference. Even the writer of the story has now acknowledged this error.
But it's also my bad, I should have looked into it further because the 24% approval rating is far too low for it to make any sense, hence, my bewilderment in the post above. It turns out there is no good reason to dislike this lovely woman as much as people genuinely dislike George W. Bush. Finally, this mitigates but does not vitiate my race point. I am relieved to see it's not as bad as I was worried about based on the misleading number, but it is certainly still something to keep an eye out for.