By Sophie Quinton
As President Obama reaches out this week to the white, rural voters who largely eluded him in 2008, he's facing criticism from some of his strongest allies: African-American leaders.
African-American support for the first black president remains high overall, but the current dismal state of the economy in urban areas means Obama can't dismiss any concerns out of hand.
Two high-profile critics of Obama, Princeton University professor Cornel West and broadcaster Tavis Smiley, will spend August conducting town hall meetings in urban black communities. They've dubbed it their "Poverty Tour," and for good reason; in July, nearly 17 percent of African Americans were unemployed, almost double the national rate of 9.1 percent.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, also lashed out at Obama last month for failing to serve communities like Conyers' majority-minority district in Detroit. "I've got nothing from the White House," Conyers said at a press conference for the Out of Poverty Caucus. "We want him to know … we've had it. We want him to come out on our side and advocate."
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The Black Caucus will host job fairs, job-readiness workshops, and seminars for unemployed African Americans over the August recess. Obama is not scheduled to take part in those events.
"The president is very focused on every American who is suffering during these turbulent economic times," White House spokesman Jay Carney said when asked about West and Smiley's "Poverty Tour." Carney also called the high African-American unemployment rate "unacceptable."
African-American poverty creates an awkward situation for black lawmakers, who want to advocate for their constituents but don't want to betray a president who means so much to their community. Black Caucus chairman Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., has called poverty "a crisis in the African-American community," but he has resisted accusing Obama of inaction.
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"We think that if the White House shifted toward dealing with this specific population, that it would be helpful. But I'm not going to throw the president under the bus and say he doesn't care or worse," Cleaver said on CNN last week. "There's a disagreement here, but we've decided to take a step on our own, no matter what the White House does."
Black Caucus leaders used similarly muted language when calling on the president to increase African Americans' access to bailout funds back in 2009.
The real question isn't whether African-American voters will vote for a Republican in 2012; it's whether they will vote at all. And for Obama, who rode massive minority turnout to victory in 2008, even a small drop in African-Americans enthusiasm could be a problem. Nearly a quarter of votes cast in 2008 were cast by non-whites, the highest rate ever; 95 percent of African Americans, 67 percent of Latinos and 62 percent of Asian Americans went for Obama.
Much has been made out of a July Washington Post/ABC News poll that found just half of African Americans surveyed approved of Obama's handling of the economy, compared to 77 percent approval in October 2010. Some commentators have argued that the recession will reduce support for Obama in minority communities.
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But Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., strongly pushed back against speculation that African Americans are losing faith in the president at a recent Center for American Progress forum on the African-American vote in 2012.
For those who believe "support among African Americans for President Obama has dropped to historic lows—I would urge them to come out to the 4th Congressional District, because my experience is that that has not been true," Edwards said.
"There hardly is a week that goes by when one of us [in the Black Caucus] is not asked whether President Obama is doing enough for black people," Edwards said. "I think President Obama is doing just what he needs to do—for all Americans." Edwards' district is 56 percent African-American, and Obama carried 89 percent of the district's votes in 2008.
At the Center for American Progress forum, panelists laughingly dismissed any idea that Obama needs to put forth a "black agenda."
To step forward with a job-creation program for a single ethnic group would be polarizing, said Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart. "If you want him to be, guaranteed, a one-term president," Capehart said, blacks should demand that Obama hold a press conference tomorrow and say, "Here is my black agenda!"
African-American support for the president and his party remains strong, panelists agreed. Obama is "an icon," said Jamal Simmons, a principal at the Raben Group. Voting against him would be like "voting against Martin Luther King." Kim Williams, a faculty member at Portland State University, also noted that Republicans aren't making a "concerted effort to compete for the black vote."
While African Americans don't need to be persuaded to vote Democrat, they do need to be persuaded to show up at the polls, Simmons said. Simmons said Obama should better communicate "all the good he has been doing for African Americans," from securing funding for historically black colleges to passing the health care reform law while working to prevent government layoffs.
Edwards said Obama's support for the Pell Grant program is hugely important to her constituents, many of whom don't have the equity to secure conventional student loans for their children.
"We didn't elect a civil-rights leader to be president, we elected a politician," Simmons said. A good politician, however, doesn't take his supporters for granted.
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