President Barack Obama has never been a man’s man, or, more precisely, a men’s man. In 2008 he failed to win a majority of men’s votes, and in 2012 he lost men decisively. Hostility toward the president is not distributed evenly among men: He does fairly well among Hispanics and enjoys nearly unanimous support among blacks, but he lost the last election by 27 points among white men. In the most recent Quinnipiac poll, men report disapproval of the president by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
Men aren’t buying what President Obama is selling.
The president’s low standing among the Y-chromosome set, dramatic though it is, is not entirely surprising. He couldn’t close the deal with them the first time around, he presided over an ugly recession in which men were particularly hard hit, and then he presided over a sickly recovery in which unemployment remains elevated and is significantly higher for men than for women. And the labor-force participation rate, in many ways a better measure of employment, has plunged during the Obama years. Forgot the bicycle helmet, the mom jeans, the wife scolding us about eating our veggies, the fact that he throws a baseball like he should be relaxing with a mug of cocoa in his footie pajamas — President Obama loses points for style, to be sure, but he has a substance problem too.
Unemployment is a special kind of hell. My own brief bout with it — for a newspaper editor in the 21st century, having had only a few continuous months of unemployment counts as good luck — was easily among the worst periods of my life, and I was fairly well prepared for it, having some savings, no children, and few substantial bills. The first week was like a vacation. The second week brought anxiety, the third terror. I cannot quite imagine what it would have been like if I had had a couple of kids, an underwater mortgage, and less-encouraging prospects of rejoining the work force in relatively short order. It is entirely unsurprising that there exists a long-established relationship between unemployment and suicide. Nor is it surprising that that relationship is especially pronounced among men.
The experience of joblessness is, I think, particularly despair-inducing for men. It isn’t that unemployment is not stressful for women as well — it surely is, especially for women who bear the burden of economic responsibility for their households. But there is entangled in that issue something more than simple financial well-being for men. To be a provider, for oneself and one’s family, to do something useful and to earn, is deeply connected to many men’s sense of self-respect, to their identity as men. A second strong correlating factor in men’s suicide rates is being single, which is itself linked to the question of employment. With weak economic conditions persisting, suicide rates have been rising.
For those men who have experienced extended unemployment, the memory is often a vivid and painful one. And even those who haven’t can detect the scent of economic fear in the air. Suicide is an extreme reaction, of course, but you don’t have to be an economic weatherman to know which way the financial winds are blowing. Women experiencing economic vulnerability tend toward welfare-statism, with SNAP and Medicaid and all of the rest of it acting in loco mariti. Men experiencing economic vulnerability, or who have reason to think they may experience it in the future, seem to move in the opposite direction: President Obama lost white men without college degrees by 31 points last time around.
It may be the case that men see Barack Obama as a kind of romantic competitor — not the man himself, but the vision of government he stands for. The more the state steps into the role of provider, the less men have to offer in that capacity. This is especially true of men with modest earnings potential. I doubt that very many of those non-college-educated, working-class white men follow the careers of Hanna Rosin or Maureen Dowd, but the message — “men are obsolete” — infiltrates the culture at large. President Obama is the messenger, and an agent of the Rosin-Dowd worldview: His vision of the good life is universal kindergarten and universal graduate school, a coddling welfare state, etc., and a gimlet eye cast upon much of what used to be thought of as man’s work: drilling for gas, timbering, mining. President Obama is first and foremost the public face of his own agenda and his own economic record, which is a poor one. But he is also the face of something else, an unbrave new world with little use for men whose Christmas plans do not involve buttonholing family members for precious and grim-mouthed homilies about Obamacare.
American men have been losing ground since 1973, the year their real wages peaked. Strong economic growth from the Reagan years to the turn of the century, along with strong economic mobility and a general national sense of optimism, helped soften that blow, as did rising household incomes as more women entered the work force. But our once-dynamic economy has grown sclerotic, and economic mobility has declined — and that wasn’t supposed to happen. President Obama represents what admirers such as Michael Grunwald have called a “New New Deal.” American men don’t seem to think it is a very good deal at all.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.