President Obama pleased gays and lesbians when he endorsed same-sex marriage. He thrilled women when he signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
But when it comes to African Americans, a group that gave Obama 96 percent of its votes, there is disappointment over what many believe is the president’s failure to address their concerns.
With Black unemployment officially at 14 percent — nearly double the rate among Whites — and a steep rise in rise in poverty and incarceration rates, many Blacks are expressing frustration at the president’s leadership.
While no one expects African Americans to make an exodus to presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, there is concern among Democrats over whether Obama will benefit from as large a turnout and the same level of enthusiasm as he enjoyed in 2008.
An analysis by the California News Service shows that had Blacks voted for Obama at the same rate they did for John Kerry four years earlier, Obama would have lost in North Carolina and Virginia.
Black Support Falling
African American support for the president is the highest out of any subgroup polled by Gallup at 88 percent, but it has dropped eight points since Obama took office in January 2009.
The California News analysis found that Obama would have prevailed in most swing states even with lower levels of Black support. However, if the race tightens in states like Ohio and Florida, both with over 10 percent of Black voters, the size of African American turnout could be crucial.
David Bositis, who studies African American voting patterns at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said Obama will need strong Black support to keep several states in “the Democratic column.”
Obama helped fuel high expectations among African Americans during his presidential campaign, and he received more Black votes than any candidate in history.
After Obama was elected, polls showed that African-Americans looked at themselves differently. A January 2010 Pew survey revealed huge optimism. The percentage of African Americans who thought Blacks were better off than they were five years before nearly doubled.
Yet Obama, whether by accident or design, has not made race a focal point of his presidency.
The lack of policies specifically geared toward African Americans have many Blacks — who are regarded as the most loyal Democratic constituency — angered that their votes are being taken for granted.
The frustration was piqued by the president’s same-sex marriage endorsement, which did not play as well among African Americans as the rest of the Democratic base.
“I cannot support him,” said Emmett Burns, an African American state legislator representing an overwhelmingly Black district in Baltimore County when asked about Obama’s policy on same-sex marriage. “He has taken the Black vote and people for granted.”
African Americans have suffered in the current economy. The Black unemployment rate remains higher than the national average in all 50 states, according to an analysis released by the Economic Policy Institute.
The unemployment rate among Black Californians is more than 20 percent, as compared to 10 percent for Whites and 9 percent for Asians.
More than one third of African Americans live below the poverty line, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And the U.S. Bureau of Justice estimated in 2008 that there were over 846,000 Black men in prison, making up 40 percent of all inmates.
Obama has had few announcements aimed specifically at African Americans, though his stimulus bill gave $850 million to historically Black colleges.
Many of Obama’s advocates — including the president himself — say that he must be president of all Americans and not just a subgroup. However, they point out that many of his policies have greatly benefited African Americans.
“The stimulus saved literally thousands and thousands of Black jobs,” Bositis said. “When money ran out and the federal government stopped providing money to states, state governments fired workers. There has been over a million people fired from state and local governments, and a lot of those have been Black.”
In August 2010, the president signed the Fair Sentencing Act which addressed the issue of crime and punishment in the Black community, reducing the glaring disparity in punishment for those charged with crack offenses and those with powder cocaine offenses.
Some felt he was acting on behalf of a particular group when he endorsed gay marriage last month, a position which is much less popular among Blacks than the rest of the Democratic base.
“Obama has done irreconcilable harm to himself. Black voters will sit it out — they will not vote for Romney — they will sit it out, like I am going to do,” Burns said.
African Americans have traditionally voted overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2004, John Kerry received 88 percent of the African American vote. In 2000, Al Gore received 90 percent.
Bositis said that African Americans’ distance from the Republican Party was cemented by the politics of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“There has been a slow but steady movement of Southern White conservatives to the Republican Party — these are the same people who discriminated against Black people. Blacks are not going to vote for a party that is dominated by their worst enemies,” Bositis said.
However, the Republican Party has made a push for the Black vote this upcoming election.
The GOP has created an outreach program to recruit more Black voters, including launching a new website that features testimonials from the party’s most prominent Black elected officials — Florida Rep. Allen West, South Carolina Rep. Tim Scott and Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll.
At the same time Republicans have introduced numerous voter identification laws, which critics charge are aimed at preventing minorities from turning out to the polls. Eight states adopted laws last year requiring voters to present state-issued photo IDs when they arrive at the polls, a constraint which has a disproportionate affect on minorities.
African American voter registration has dropped seven percent since 2008, according to the US Census Bureau.
Harris, who recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post entitled “Still Waiting for Our First Black President,” believes that Obama needs to do more overtly for the Black community.
“On the one hand, the president and his administration have a philosophy of universal approaches — that is pushing public policy to attract everyone — but that is only one strategy and for the Black community there needs to be multiple strategies,” Harris said.
Harris also said that African Americans must pressure the Obama administration into pursuing a “target policy” — pushing policies that target specific groups — rather than waiting for the president to do it himself.
“If you look at other constituencies that lobby government officials for support of legislation, they don’t just stop at members of Congress or state and local governments, they also challenge the White House,” he said. “The problem is that Black advocates aren’t asking the president to do anything.”