Hope on race issues rises

Since Obama's victory, polls show high expectations

The New York TimesApril 28, 2009 

  • The nationwide telephone survey was conducted Wednesday through Sunday with 973 adults. For purposes of analysis, blacks were oversampled in this poll, for a total of 212. They were then weighted back to their proper proportion in the poll, according to the New York Times/CBS News poll.

    The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for all adults, and plus or minus 7 percentage points for blacks.

Barack Obama's presidency seems to be altering the public perception of race relations in the United States.

Two-thirds of Americans now say race relations are generally good, and the percentage of blacks who say so has doubled since last July, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

Despite that, half of blacks still say whites have a better chance of getting ahead in American society, the poll found. Black Americans remain among the president's staunchest supporters; 70 percent of black respondents now say the country is headed in the right direction, compared with 34 percent of whites.

The poll found broad support for Obama's approach on a variety of issues, including one of the most contentious on his plate right now: whether Congress should investigate the harsh interrogation tactics authorized by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Sixty-two percent of Americans share Obama's view that hearings are unnecessary.

As Obama approaches the 100th day of his presidency Wednesday, Americans seem to have high hopes for him; 72 percent said they are optimistic about the next four years. By and large, Americans expect the president to make progress in revamping health care, energy and immigration policy, issues central to his ambitious agenda.

But the optimism is tempered by a feeling of resignation about two of the most difficult challenges the president faces: reviving the economy and ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq. Most Americans say Obama has begun to make progress on both fronts, but many do not expect either the recession or the war to be over by the end of his term.

Throughout Obama's candidacy and his young presidency, race has been a subtle thread woven through his message of change. Yet the president shies away from talking about it. In response to a question at his last news conference, Obama conceded that his election had created "justifiable pride on the part of the country," but quickly shifted gears, adding, "That lasted about a day."

But Americans do feel differently about race and race relations with Obama in the White House, according to poll respondents who spoke in follow-up interviews. Some, like Jacqueline Luster, 60, a retired bank employee in Macedonia, Ohio, say that the times are changing.

"With him as president, people seem to be working together toward the same goals and that has helped race relations," she said. "Before there was more of a separation, blacks working for black goals and whites for white goals. Obama has helped change the perception of blacks in a positive way, but it's also the times."

Another Democrat, Lisa Fleming, 49, who is white, said that even in the small Illinois town of Potomac, where she lives, she notices "people of different races being kinder to each other" since Obama's election. A white Republican homemaker in Kansas City, Mary Robertson, 78, said Obama's "openness and acceptance have helped others be more open and accepting."

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