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Signs of impatience with Obama among black voters

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2011-09-26

With unemployment spiking and black leaders calling on Obama to tackle problems in minority communities, a new poll suggests growing disillusionment amongst African-Americans with the country’s first black president.

US President Barack Obama scored a sweeping 96% of the “black vote” in the 2008 election. But a new poll shows that enthusiasm for the president among African-Americans has slipped significantly, with “strongly favorable” views of Obama declining from 83% only five months ago to 58% today.

The drop in support from black voters seen in the Washington Post-ABC News poll is in line with the downturn in positive opinions of the president observed across the US population in general. As Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, noted: “Every segment of the electorate has declining approval of and favorability toward President Obama. The economic news is very bad and folks are scared.”

And though black voter support of Obama is showing its first cracks, African-Americans remain largely fond of the president, with 86% of those polled categorising their opinion of him as “somewhat favourable”.

But with the unemployment rate among African-Americans spiking and black leaders calling on Obama to more proactively tackle problems in minority communities, the new poll suggests growing African-American disillusionment with the country’s first African-American president.

‘We’re getting tired’

The jobless figures for African-Americans are the worst in 27 years, with unemployment in the community jumping to 16.7% in August - compared to an overall 9.1 percent for the whole country.

"African-American voters are looking to the president to help solve those problems,” explained Hilary Shelton, senior vice president for advocacy and policy at the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People). “They’re concerned about how long things are taking.”

African-American leaders have reserved their harshest words for Republicans. In a statement reacting to the August unemployment report, Representative Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (a body representing black members of US Congress), said: “Time and again, [Republicans] have continued to….deny our children vital education opportunities, eliminating programs that help families most in need, job training programs, and threaten the livelihood of American families.”

But more recently, some of those same leaders have turned up the heat on Obama, too. Last week, Cleaver told a Florida newspaper that “If Bill Clinton had been in the White House and had failed to address this problem, we probably would be marching on the White House”.

He went on to acknowledge that African-American lawmakers are torn between their protectiveness of Obama and their impatience with what they see as inadequate solutions to their problems: “There is a less-volatile reaction in the Congressional Black Caucus, because nobody wants to do anything that would empower the people who hate the president.”

Another one of the Caucus members, Representative Maxine Waters of California, has noted the same mix of African-American allegiance to and frustration with Obama: “The Congressional Black Caucus loves the president. We’re supportive of the president, but we’re getting tired,” Waters declared at a speaking engagement in August. “We want to give him every opportunity, but our people are hurting. The unemployment is unconscionable. We don’t know what the strategy is.”

Problem of policy or communication?

According to Hilary Shelton of the NAACP, Obama’s recently announced jobs bill proposal has eased some anxiety in African-American leadership circles. “Many of us are convinced that [Obama’s] new jobs bill will address those disparities in unemployment rates, while bringing the overall unemployment rate down, as well,” Shelton said. He pointed to one provision that would prohibit employer discrimination against job applicants who have been unemployed for a long time, and a second that actually would provide financial incentives for employers to recruit workers who have long been jobless.

Moreover, Shelton argued, eroding support for Obama in the African-American community can be attributed more to shortcomings in the president’s communication operation than his policy-making. “We’re seeing in the bills coming out of the White House that they recognise African-American challenges and are crafting solutions that are tailored to the diversity that is America,” Shelton said. “But the White House has not done a good job promoting those aspects of its policies and making sure the communities know the bills are good for them.”

Since taking office, Obama has not proposed policies explicitly intended to help specific communities – a logical choice, given his 2008 campaign’s broad message of unity and transcending, rather than focusing on, differences. “I see no possibility of Obama pursuing race-based policies,” offered Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. “That would cut against his strong beliefs and past practices.”

But some prominent African-American leaders are pushing the president to more specifically address African-American issues in his policy. At a job fair in August, Representative Maxine Waters said that job creation initiatives should “target where the greatest need is”, while Reverend Jesse Jackson called for a national summit to tackle the subject of black unemployment.

‘More confident in Obama than in the others’

Despite the dissatisfaction implicit in those calls and in the sliding poll numbers, most analysts see black voters sticking with Obama in the long run. “I expect black support for Obama and turnout in 2012 will come close to matching levels reached in 2008,” said Mann. “They remain by far his strongest source of support.”

One reason for that may be that the large majority of African-Americans see no better alternative. “If you look at the confidence they have in the president versus others in terms of solving problems, you’ll find they’re much more confident in the president than in the others,” Shelton said.

Another reason is that there are signs that in the face of ongoing Republican opposition, Obama is now taking a tougher stance on the economy. As Shelton recalled, “After his recent speech on jobs, I had people from our community coming up to me and saying: ‘That’s my president. That’s the man I voted for.’”

Date created : 2011-09-23


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