Obama’s favorability numbers start to drop among African Americans

September 21, 2011

New cracks have begun to show in President Obama’s support amongst African Americans, who have been his strongest supporters. Five months ago, 83 percent of African Americans held “strongly favorable” views of Obama, but in a new Washington Post-ABC news poll that number has dropped to 58 percent. That drop is similar to slipping support for Obama among all groups.

“There is a certain amount of racial loyalty and party loyalty, but eventually that was going to have to weaken,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, who studies African Americans. “It’s understandable given the economy.”

African Americans have historically correlated approval ratings of the president to the unemployment rate, she said. The slip in the strongly favorable rating continues the decline Obama has seen among all groups, but black voters have been his staunchest supporters. Overall, they still hold a generally favorable view of the president with 86 percent saying they view him at least somewhat favorably.

Gillespie’s view that the decline is tied to the disproportionately high jobless rate faced by African Americans correlates with the drop in their view of Obama’s handling of the economy. In July, only 54 percent of blacks said they thought Obama’s policies were making the economy better compared with 77 percent the previous year.

Similarly, the White House has been sharply criticized in recent months by black political leaders, who argue that he has not done enough to help blacks. The unemployment rate for African Americans hit 16 percent this summer, the highest rate since 1984, and the members of the Congressional Black Caucus launched a jobs tour focused on the problem.

This week the caucus is holding its annual legislative caucus in Washington, and the focus of a series of morning panels Wednesday was the lack of progress on jobs. Rep. Maxine Waters, who has been pushing Obama and publicly chided an administration official during the jobs tour to say the word “black” and directly address the needs of the community, said she would “continue to push the president and the Congress to adopt targeted policies to address the need.”

Waters, who heads the CBC’s jobs initiative, said she saw the frustration that is registering in the president’s polls at the jobs fairs she attended. “I saw the kind of hopelessness that is setting in. People were not only discouraged, they came to try to get a job, but they didn’t really believe that something substantive was going to happen,” she said.

Clyde McQueen, who is African American and runs a job placement firm in Kansas City, agreed. “The masses of young people and the first-time voter and entry-level workers are being so adversely impacted through downsizing at all levels,” said McQueen, who is attending the CBC meetings this week. “They are looking at the head of the government. When you are at the top, you take the blame.”

Obama, who will speak before the caucus’s formal dinner this week, has been pushing the passage of his jobs acts and turning a focus to his black supporters. Last week he told a group of black bloggers and advocates that his plan would create jobs in the black community and asked them to “pump up” his plan. “We are at a critical juncture,” he said. “I have been fighting for 2 1 / 2 years. We have stabilized the economy but at an unemployment rate that is too high. . . . I need people to be out there promoting this and pushing this to make sure that the American people know what is going on.”

Gillespie said the additional focus on African Americans by Obama and his reelection campaign is necessary. The sag in “strongly favorable” ratings is an important measure of intensity as the 2012 campaign approaches.

“The president cannot rest on his laurels with respect to black voter representation. Given the fact that people don’t necessarily strongly approve of President Obama, that could translate to less enthusiasm for his candidacy,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they will vote for the Republican candidate. It means they will not turn out.”

Polling director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Peyton Craghill contributed to this report.

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Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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