President Obama is walking a tightrope to maintain his support among African Americans and at the same time avoid alienating white voters.
It's not so much that Obama, the nation's first African American president, is losing support in the black community. About 90 per cent of African Americans support his re-election, according to the polls. The problem is one of intensity and turnout and both may be lacking for him in November 2012.
The problem for Obama is that the economic plight of African Americans is a lot worse that it is for whites. The national unemployment rate, for example, is about 9 percent but in the black community it's more than 16 percent. Many black leaders and organizers say Obama hasn't been doing enough to develop an agenda specifically for African Americans. [Read: Recession Hurt Hispanics, Blacks More Than Whites]
Among his toughest critics is Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat and one of the most influential African Americans in Congress. 'We want him to know that from this day forward...we've had it," Conyers said at a recent forum in Miami sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. We want him to come out on our side and advocate, not to watch and wait."
But Democratic strategists warn that if Obama seems to be playing favorites by helping blacks, he will turn off white voters. That would spell political disaster for him, especially in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio and in normally Republican states that went for Obama in 2008 such as North Carolina and Virginia.
I interviewed Obama at length about all this for my new book, Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House. And his view appears to be the same as it was when I talked to him for the book—he won't promote a "black agenda" because he says his overall policies will help blacks just as they will help most other Americans. And that includes his policies on healthcare and education. [Vote: Has Martin Luther King's Dream Been Realized?]
Yet even if his policies don't change, there are signs that Obama will be increasing his outreach to blacks. Yesterday, he taped an appearance on a black-oriented radio station in Chicago, his home town, and he called in to a radio show hosted by Tom Joyner, who has defended Obama from criticism from other black leaders. Obama said his policies are helpful to blacks and fair to everyone else.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told MSNBC yesterday, "If you weaken President Obama in the black community, you seriously hamper his chances of being re-elected. A small depression among the African American electorate could be devastating to this president. And I'd also like folks on the other side of the conversation to tell me who the alternative is that's going to do such a better job for black people. Will it be Michele Bachmann? I mean, will it be Mitt Romney? Rick Perry?" [See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]
Reed raised legitimate questions and the answers that Obama comes up with in walking this political tightrope will go a long way toward determining if he wins a second term.