One distinctive in Obama’s campaign plea was a reference to “the little girl who goes to public school in Dillon.” In this case, the president was referring to Dillon, S.C., a small, rural town with a crumbling public school and a suffering economy, conditions all too common across the South.
About 125 miles from Dillon, Democrats are gathered for this week’s presidential convention in Charlotte, N.C. The nation will be watching, and it seems like a good time to assess the job Obama has been doing in Dillon and other Southern places.
As Gene Nichol, the director of the University of North Carolina’s Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, remarked at a Charlotte panel discussion Sunday, the South is the “native home of poverty, which means we have more poor people and more political leaders who are untroubled by it than the rest of the country.”
If Obama’s words moved voters in 2008, it was likely because he was a political leader who appeared to be prepared to seek to address parts of the nation left behind. In many ways, the jury is still out on how he’s lived up to that promise.
Obama’s health-care reform offers a model lesson. The legislation just barely passed Congress, opposed by all but two Republicans. It survived the Supreme Court by a lone vote.
Let’s not overlook where much of the opposition to Obamacare originated — the South. The legal challenge was led by Southern states, areas with heavy ranks of uninsured Americans and therefore states with the most to gain from the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act of 2010.
When Obama speaks Thursday from Charlotte, he has the chance to make that very point. He shares some fault for his uneven performance, as well. His missteps in health-care reform also measure his progress (or lack thereof) over the past four years. Missing from the debate over health care has been a vigorous defense from the president. He’s thus far squandered an opportunity to forcefully and persuasively sell the benefits of his landmark legislative achievement. As his opponents have spread scandalous lies about the law and its intent, Obama has only offered feeble and measured responses.
He’s been a poor salesman of health-care reform, just as he’s done a poor job selling himself to the South. Other than flying in to big cities like Atlanta and Charlotte, Obama has mostly avoided the South. He’s been unwilling or unable to provide an alternate version for Southerners who constantly hear from Obama’s enemies that the president is unqualified.
Obama will make a mistake if he believes that spending a few days in Charlotte will mean he’s checked a box marked “South” on his presidential to-do list. The South is more than its boom towns with their affluent suburbs. On the whole, cities like Dillon or Anniston are closer to the norm for the South, places that are struggling to keep up.