WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will not be attending the NAACP convention in Kansas City next month as its supporters had hoped.
Michelle Obama will instead.
The first lady, who had been invited along with the president, will be the headliner at the gathering, July 10-15, according to a White House official.
Her appearance at the annual meeting of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization solves a dilemma that found the White House caught between competing demands, and the likelihood of disappointing some important allies.
“The president can’t be in two places at one time, which is why God made very popular wives,” said Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.
The NAACP had hoped that the president would be its main speaker. But that became less likely on Wednesday when the White House confirmed that he would top the bill at a fundraiser in Kansas City for Missouri Democratic Senate hopeful Robin Carnahan.
The fundraiser will be July 8, two days before the start of the convention.
Michelle Obama, meanwhile, enjoys widespread popularity, more so than her husband, whose approval ratings have dipped as he grapples with a variety of thorny issues. She has become a leading voice on healthy eating and the fight against childhood obesity.
“I’m not disappointed, and I don’t think anyone will be,” said Anita Russell, head of Kansas City chapter of the NAACP. “We’ll be glad to hear her…and we do have a health program and health symposium during the convention, so I think it’ll be great.”
Even so, there could be some bruised feelings over the fact that the president will attend a political event in Kansas City a week before the NAACP meets, but can’t make its convention.
Missouri, however, is pivotal to the White House’s short-term and long-term political calculus.
In Carnahan, the Missouri secretary of state, the White House sees a chance to pick up a Senate seat now held by Republicans. GOP Sen. Kit Bond is retiring and Carnahan’s probable Republican challenger, Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt, is expected to be well-funded for the fall campaign.
The race has remained close and Carnahan will need the financial boost that the president is likely to deliver.
Long-term, President Obama faces re-election in 2012, a race which begins in earnest the moment the 2010 midterms are history. While he lost Missouri in 2008 by less than 4,000 votes, the state has a long history as a presidential bellwether.
Burdett Loomis, who teaches political science at the University of Kansas, said it’s hard to escape the interpretation that the White House chose the fundraiser over the convention.
Republicans looked for political advantage in Obama’s decision to raise money for Carnahan.
“Instead of asking Barack Obama to show her the money, Robin Carnahan would be better off if he could show her the jobs,” said Bill Riggs, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
President Obama spoke to the NAACP’s annual convention last year in New York City. Benjamin Todd Jealous, the group’s president and chief executive officer, said it knew that an appearance this year was not a sure thing because he said President Obama has so much on his plate.
Jealous said the group was honored to host the first lady.
“We’re very excited and pleased that she’ll be able to join us,” he said. “She’s an historic figure - the first descendant of slaves to live in White House, which was built by slaves. She is an inspiration to our entire membership.”