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Can Obama deliver the black vote?

President Obama at a Philadelphia rally on Sunday.
President Obama at a Philadelphia rally on Sunday. (J. Scott Applewhite/associated Press)
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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, October 12, 2010

At a high-spirited rally in Philadelphia on Sunday, President Obama challenged the mostly black crowd to defy pundits who purvey the conventional wisdom. "They think, 'Oh, well, Obama's name is not on the ballot, maybe they're not going to turn out,' " he said, referring to African American voters. "You've got to prove them wrong."

Delivering the same message at historically black Bowie State University in Maryland a few days earlier, the president got downright personal: "Don't make me look bad, now."

How the president looks on Election Day will depend in part on his ability to fire up the constituencies in the Democratic Party's base. With different groups, he's taking different approaches.

For progressives who have criticized his administration from the left, he has a stern lecture that might be paraphrased like this: "Come on, people, give us a break. Have you noticed that we don't exactly have a liberal majority in Congress? Yet, look at all we've managed to accomplish." For centrist Democrats who might have wanted him to spend more time on jobs and less on health care, Obama's message is essentially apocalyptic, although it's delivered in his customary no-drama way. Something like: "You're right, things aren't as great as we'd like. But just imagine the disaster if the Republicans take control of Capitol Hill."

With African Americans, his appeal has been simpler and more direct: "I need you." The response he gets from black voters may determine the outcome of some of November's key races.

The president's overall approval rating, according to the latest Gallup survey, is a middling 46 percent -- not great, but roughly comparable to that of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton at this stage of their presidencies. His approval among African Americans, by contrast, is a stratospheric 87 percent.

This despite the fact that black people have suffered disproportionately from the subprime mortgage meltdown, the tidal wave of foreclosures and evictions, the worst recession in decades and the agonizingly slow "jobless" recovery that economists say we're experiencing -- problems that have their roots in prior administrations, but that many other Americans seem prepared to blame on Obama and the Democrats.

The national unemployment rate is 9.6 percent. For African Americans, it's a punishing 16.1 percent -- yet African Americans remain the president's most enthusiastic and loyal constituency.

There are two reasons. For at least two generations, black Americans have been faithful supporters of the Democratic Party in general. And specifically, their high regard for Obama has to be because he is the first African American president of a nation that not long ago consigned black people to second-class citizenship.

So when Obama runs again in 2012, I can predict quite confidently that African Americans will be there for him. But black turnout is especially low in midterm elections. And given the state of the economy, I wonder how many middle-class black voters find themselves "exhausted."

That was the word Velma Hart used in a town-hall meeting last month to let Obama know of her frustration. Hart told the president that she was "exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now." She talked about the toll the recession has taken on her family, and said she and her husband had joked that "we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs and beans era of our lives."

I chatted with Hart the following day, and she made clear that her words were not intended as any kind of anti-Obama screed. She was just expressing the feelings of millions of Americans, of all races, who fear that their once-solid foothold in the middle class has suddenly become tenuous.

Some African American activists have grumbled, meanwhile, that Obama has been unambitious in addressing the problems of poverty and dysfunction in inner-city black communities -- such as, for example, the more depressed parts of Philadelphia.

Will Obama's personal popularity be enough to boost African American turnout significantly above its usual levels? A veteran of Pennsylvania politics told me recently that this might be the only way for Democrat Joe Sestak to have a chance against Republican Pat Toomey in the state's Senate race -- one of a number of contests nationwide in which the black vote could tip the balance.

It's not easy to convert exhaustion into enthusiasm. But if Obama doesn't want to look bad, that's what he has to do.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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