A recent PPP poll has found that Obama's approval among African-American voters at 76%. I have long suspected that the public criticism of the President by black leaders and the dire circumstances within which too many African Americans find themselves are starting to take their toll on the President. The concern is not that African Americans will start to vote for the the Republicans, but that they'll stay home and not turnout.
There is no doubt that the Administration is paying attention. I am still concerned about their strategy of soft-pedaling the concerns of the African-American community. Moreover it is not clear that they fully appreciate the depth of this problem. My worry is not only that there is a fundamental problem with the strategy, but that the strategy may be wrong on its merits. The Administration's strategy is to enact general public policy with the expectation that those policies will disproportionately benefit distressed communities. Thus, you pass healthcare reform and because blacks are more likely to be uninsured or under-insured, the expectation is that they will benefit disproportionately from the public policy. A recent Politico article reported that the " president is reportedly angry that African-American leaders aren’t crediting him for his hard-bought achievements that will especially help communities of color, including health care reform, aid to cities, student aid and protecting Medicaid." The worry is that this trickle-down strategy may be wrong on the merits. A rising tide may not lift all boats if we are not all in the same body of water. If the strategy is wrong on the merits, general public policy measures will have little impact on the black community and will certainly not be as effective as specific public policy measures.
My guess is that the President's upcoming jobs speech is potentially vulnerable in this regard. I think he needs to acknowledge explicitly the jobs problem in the African-American community and communities of color. He might also be wise to provide specific prescriptions directed toward the economic plight of African Americans. I was quite struck by this interview that the President gave recently on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, which has a very large and predominantly black audience. What struck me was that the race-avoidance strategy was still in effect, even talking to a predominantly black audience. The President did not specifically address the African-American community as such until toward the end of the interview when he was talking about healthcare. He said, "Well, I think one of the things that we really emphasized during health care reform was prevention. And nobody benefits more than the African-American community from that because we have so many preventable diseases. And that’s why what Tom is doing is so important." Notice that the pitch is again general and not specific to the needs of the black community.
So far, this strategy has been defended on the grounds that a black President cannot be seen to be overtly responsive to the needs of the black community; if he is, he will lose the election. Maybe. I'm becoming less persuaded that the risk-reward calculus here favors the black community. Perhaps more importantly, I think there is a serious likelihood that enough black voters will sit out 2012 and I'm not sure that even Rick Perry will scare them to the polls. You need to give people a reason to vote for you. You need to tell them what you're going to do for them, especially when they are hurting. It is early and there is still time, but the warning signs are there.