Some African-American voters have watched enviously as President Barack Obama courted other voting blocs critical to his re-election hopes.
The president pushed for repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that barred gays from serving openly in the military and endorsed same-sex marriage; he helped push through fair pay for women; he supported the DREAM Act, which provided a path to citizenship for young adults in the U.S. illegally; he said his administration would stop deporting young illegal immigrants who entered the country as children provided they meet certain requirements.
Given that an overwhelming number of African-Americans consistently support Obama, some have openly wondered if the nation’s first “African-American” president is taking them for granted. And if he is, is that a risk he can afford to take.
The answer appears to be yes.
Obama won 95% of the Black vote in 2008, and polls show he enjoys 87% support among Black registered voters versus 5% for Republican rival Mitt Romney.
“Well, I think, he can afford to take African-American voters for granted,” said Fredrick Harris, a professor of political science at Columbia University and director of its Institute for Research in African-American Studies. “No other constituency gives that large a percentage of its vote to the Democratic Party,” Harris said, adding that Blacks with years of subservience have earned a place as the Democrats’ “most loyal constituency.”
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said, “I can certainly tell you that from a practical, political standpoint, [President Obama] probably could afford to take it for granted because once again, he’s going to get well over 90% of the African-American vote.”
Obama supporters have long tried to extinguish the lingering question, pointing to the president’s policies that have bode well for Blacks.
But recent events have reignited it.
On Wednesday, Romney appeared to tweak the president’s absence from one of the most high-profile gathering of Blacks this election year, the Houston convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.
“We have to make our case to every voter,” Romney said. “We don’t count anybody out, and we sure don’t make a habit of presuming anyone’s support. Support is asked for and earned, and that’s why I’m here today.”
Romney’s campaign was even more blunt.
Before Romney’s appearance, adviser Tara Wall — herself an African-American — said in a statement: “If elected by a majority this November, President Romney will be a leader to all. Speaking to members of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization and establishing a dialogue with African-American voters, communicating his record of achievement and solutions for fixing a broken system of unfulfilled promises is paramount.
“Unlike President Obama, he will not take any vote for granted.”
Unwilling to let that pass, the Obama campaign promptly responded.
“President Obama does not take a single vote or support from any community for granted,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Clo Ewing wrote in a statement.
The president spoke to the convention in a prerecorded message preceding Vice President Joe Biden’s keynote address on Thursday. Obama last appeared before the group in 2009.
The backstory behind the president’s non-appearance at the NAACP convention has even left some wondering.
NAACP organizers invited the president to speak and believed the deal was sealed. So much so they advertised the president as a guest speaker. But the Obama campaign cited a “scheduling conflict” and said the president would be unable to attend.
It was unclear what the conflict was.
While the president’s schedule appeared to be wide open for Thursday — raising questions as to why his campaign cited “scheduling conflicts” — It was later confirmed Thursday that Obama and his wife, Michelle, were sitting down for an interview with CBS News.
A top NAACP official explained that a presidential visit was never confirmed.
“They were trying to work out something,” said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP Washington Bureau director and a senior vice president in the organization. “They were convinced they probably could after going through the process of trying to secure the president.”
And yet, “Something was crucial,” Shelton said. “And unfortunately, they couldn’t move it in a way they could get [the president] here this week.”
Shelton said the NAACP did not feel snubbed by the president.
“[Attendees] were excited about him coming and disappointed that he can’t come,” Shelton said. “And Barack Obama, I believe, really wanted to be with the NAACP because he recognizes that strong support that he has from this constituency.”
Shelton also said he doesn’t think the president takes the Black vote for granted.
“I would have to strongly disagree with that,” Shelton said, noting areas where the president’s policies have greatly benefited African-Americans, such as health care reform, the strengthening of hate crimes and protecting voting rights and civil rights.
“So the bottom line is that to suggest that those policies [benefiting Blacks] aren’t being passed and aren’t being addressed and the administration is not being thoughtful and proactive, I can tell you — it’s just inaccurate,” Shelton said.
Other Black leaders see it differently.
Rev. William Owens is president of the Coalition of African-American Pastors, a group that has been openly critical of the president.
“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,” Owens told reporters. “He has met with the Latinos; he meets with everything except for the people who put him where he is.”
That’s not entirely true.
The president has and does meet with African-American leaders. Later this month, he will speak to the National Urban League, a business-minded civil rights organization.
Still, political experts understand the criticism.
“Black voters support him fervently…And quite frankly, unlike the other constituencies, Black voters, Black advocates haven’t asked the president — at least publicly — to do anything,” Harris said.
“The crucial difference, compared to the gay and lesbian community and the Latino community is that they have pushed the president on issues they think are important,” Harris said. “And the African-American community has, in many ways, focused on protecting the president from the right wing rather than pressuring him into action around issues that are particular to their community.
“[The other groups] have kept the president’s feet to the fire on things he’s promised; Black leaders and Black voters haven’t done that. And so that allows the president or the campaign to not view Black voters as a top priority.”
Sabato took a different tack.
Like Shelton, Sabato enumerated policies that have benefited African-Americans. For example, he referenced the president’s policy proposal to extend the Bush tax cut for families making less than $250,000 a year.
“He’s the first African-American president. And in a sense, he lived the African-American agenda,” Sabato said. “I think the policies that he adopted — for better or for worse — they are very much policies that benefit African-Americans.”
But if Obama’s campaign can’t spread that message, there are risks, Sabato said.
“He’s got to worry about turnout,” he said. “[Obama] doesn’t have to worry about losing votes to Mitt Romney. He has to worry about African-Americans not showing up in the record numbers that showed up in 2008.”
Turnout will affect what are expected to be narrow margins of victory for either side. In North Carolina, African-American voters make up 23% of the electorate. It’s 20% in Virginia, 13% in Florida and 11% in Ohio. Polls in all of those states show close races between Obama and Romney.
Could the notion that the president is taking African-American voters for granted perpetuate in the Black community and dampen turnout?
“It’s always possible,” Sabato said.