President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign recently launched a radio ad aimed at African-American voters titled “We’ve Got Your Back.” But will enough African-American voters have his in November?
There’s no doubt that African-Americans will vote for him in overwhelming numbers. Instead, the debate among African-Americans is whether a president who’s gone out of his way to court other groups such as gays or Hispanics with specific policies has done enough to address their unique political issues. And is it enough for them to surge to the polls again in 2012 as they did in 2008.
The jobless rate for African-Americans in June was 14.4 percent, more than 6 percentage points higher than the national average. There’s a widening gap between white and African-American wealth. Yet Obama rejects the suggestion of specific programs aimed at African-Americans, and the contrast with his recently announced support of same-sex marriage and his executive order halting the deportation of hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants strikes some African-Americans as taking them for granted.
“He can have the gay pride celebration in the White House, he can have Lady Gaga in the White House and he’s in the White House today because of the civil rights movement and the price that was paid for civil rights,” said the Rev. William Owens, the president of the Coalition of African-American Pastors, a group that opposes Obama’s gay marriage stance. “He has met with the Latinos; he meets with everything except for the people who put him where he is.”
These questions will surface again this week, as Obama skips the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People annual convention in Houston. Vice President Joe Biden will address the nation’s oldest civil rights organization Thursday instead.
Obama brushes aside questions about why he doesn’t target programs to African-Americans. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” he often says.
His message to African-American voters is that he’s delivered broad initiatives such as the health care law, neighborhood revitalization programs and money for scholarships. “He is the president for all the people, not a particular group,” said Edna Moore, an Obama campaign volunteer in Detroit.
That works for some.
“I’m disappointed with gay marriage and abortion, but I think he’s done a fine job in all other areas,” said the Rev. Keith Ratliff, the pastor of the Maple Street Missionary Baptist Church in Des Moines, Iowa. “He brought most of the troops home. He dealt with terrorists around the world that other administrations couldn’t capture or kill. He’s done well and deserves another chance.”
There’s also a deep sense of loyalty and pride. African-Americans have a unique place in the American political system, suppressed then rescued by the federal government. Now for the first time they see one of their own at the pinnacle of that government.
That sentiment isn’t universal. Obama’s attention to other major blocs in the Democratic coalition stands in contrast to his approach to African-Americans, some note.
“A lot of blacks are dissatisfied with Obama, but blacks are loyal to a fault,” Owens said. “They’re just so happy to have a black president, but that black president has to live up to the same standards of a white president. Being black doesn’t give him a pass.”
“People are seeing other constituencies getting their issues addressed and are wondering why is it that African-Americans haven’t been able to get their issues on the national agenda,” said Fredrick Harris, the director of Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies and the author of the book “The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics.” “Black unemployment is high. People feel like there needs to be targeted efforts.”
Sensing an opportunity, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will address the NAACP on Wednesday.
“Unlike President Obama, (Romney) will not take any vote for granted,” said Tara Wall, an African-American adviser for Romney’s campaign. “Every percentage point that we chip away from President Obama counts. . . . While Gov. Romney acknowledges that he will not get a majority of support from black voters, he also recognizes that President Obama can no longer count on the margins he once enjoyed. We aim to seize on those opportunities.”
The fate of the electoral votes in Ohio, Nevada, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and perhaps other states could hinge on the result.
"African-Americans are still plenty excited about Obama," said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "I expect turnout to be pretty strong."
Obama campaign officials say they’re not taking African-Americans – or any other voters – for granted. Aides recently called African-American voters “the bedrock of our support.”
The campaign insists that African-American turnout will match 2008, when two out of five new voters surging to the polls were African-American. Their voting rate was up 4 percentage points from 2004, while the rate for non-Hispanic whites dropped about 1 percentage point.
That made a difference in swing states, and it could again. The outlook for African-American votes:
– Nevada. 2008 result: Obama 94, McCain 5. African-American share of vote: 10 percent. Obama could benefit from the campaign of state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, an African-American who’s running for Congress. "You don’t have the enthusiasm you had in 2008, but if there are candidates close to home who bring people out, it could help the top of the ticket," said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
– North Carolina. 2008 result: Obama 95, McCain 5. Black share: 23 percent. Democrats in the state are in disarray. Blair Kelley, an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, thought that could be a motivator to turn out Democrats. "I wouldn’t assume being back on your heels means you do less. It means you do more," she said.
– Ohio. 2008 result: Obama 97, McCain 2. Black share: 11 percent. "A series of issues have played well in the African-American community. The (2009 economic) stimulus helped a community really hit hard by the recession, and the promise of near-universal health care is particularly attractive," said Paul Beck, a professor of political science, sociology and communication at Ohio State University.
– Virginia. 2008: Obama 92, McCain 8. Black share: 20 percent. "African-Americans are still excited about the president, and you’re going to stay within a point or two" of turnout last time, Sabato said. – Florida. 2008 results: Obama 96, McCain 4. Black share of vote: 13 percent. As in many states, "it’s unclear if the turnout will match 2008," said Merle Black, a Southern history expert at Emory University in Atlanta. Should Romney put Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on the ticket, Florida probably becomes less important for Obama.
Obama campaign officials say they’re taking no chances. They’ve launched grass-roots programs targeting African-American barbershops and beauty salons, businesses and even nightclubs.
The White House dispatched first lady Michelle Obama to the African Methodist Episcopal Church convention last week in Nashville, Tenn., where she warned attendees of the dangers of sitting on the sidelines this election year.
“Let’s be very clear: While we’re tuning out and staying home, other folks are tuning in,” she said.