Salena Zito

When Carolyn Coulson was deciding how to vote in 2008, she found Barack Obama’s rhetoric “exciting,” especially when he talked about a “different kind of politics.”

Then a student at Vanderbilt, she said John McCain was dull in comparison.

Coulson, now 25 and a Wall Street consultant, finds no trace of that Obama today.

“His rhetoric is aimed just at specific groups of people, not as someone who would bring the country together,” she said.

Identity politics is something you do when you don't have the worst economy since World War II, according to David Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor. “He cannot say anything about the economy and win,” Woodard explained.

From his mini-amnesty pitch to Hispanics, his support of gay marriage and his “identity” comments on the death of a black youth, to his turning contraception into a wedge issue, President Obama is shaping his electoral path to victory with identity politics.

After the 2008 election, he began losing white voters almost immediately. That began with stimulus spending, escalated with the health-care vote, and was cemented by a series of speeches and seemingly inconsequential decisions, such as getting involved in the goings-on of a Massachusetts police department that led to an awkward “beer summit.”

White voters make up a majority of the electoral pie, and white Democrats in the middle- to low-income working class are the soul of that coalition. In 2008, white voters without college degrees made up nearly 40 percent of all voters.

In the 2010 midterm election, when Republicans crushed Democrats up and down the ballot nationally, less than 33 percent of the white working class voted for House Democrats – a record low.

The latest Gallup in-depth poll shows only 43 percent of white 18- to 29-year-olds plan to vote for Obama, down 9 points from the 52 percent backing him in 2008; his support is down 9 points among postgraduate women, too.

Despite Coulson’s education, profession and gender, she is as yet unmoved by Obama despite being a clear target of his identity politics.

Those numbers are why you must picture Obama's strategy as creating a majority coalition of "hyphens" (African-American, Mexican-American, gay/lesbian-Americans, etc.), said Eldon Eisenach, a Tulsa University political science professor.

“Recalling Teddy Roosevelt's rejection of ‘hyphenated Americans’ and his call for national citizenship, one might add that hyphens can't govern … in the national interest,” Eisenach added.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.