Michael Johnson believes that the country would be "absolutely" better off with President Bush out of the White House.
"He's the most inept president I've ever seen in my lifetime," Johnson, an independent who lives in Normandy, Mo., said in an interview last week.
But Johnson has been so underwhelmed by Democratic challenger John F. Kerry that he said he is considering skipping over the presidential ballot when he goes to the polls Nov. 2. It is a vote that Kerry cannot afford to lose, especially in a battleground state.
"Kerry does not have the charisma, and his platform does not excite me," Johnson said, complaining that Kerry has been so preoccupied fighting with Bush over the war in Iraq and terrorism that the Massachusetts senator has ignored the economic and domestic issues that are important to Johnson's struggling community just outside St. Louis.
Johnson's frustrations were voiced by other African Americans in recent interviews and could be a pitfall for Kerry, who needs an energized Democratic base as he heads into the final weeks of the campaign. African Americans are among the party's most loyal voting groups, but festering dissatisfaction with Kerry's message and tepid interest in the race could cause many of them to stay away from the polls.
Black voters stayed home in significant enough numbers in 2002 that Democrats in South Carolina, North Carolina, Missouri, Texas, Georgia and Arkansas lost -- in large part because they neglected issues that matter to African Americans and focused, instead, on courting white conservative voters.
In two Washington Post-ABC News polls last month, 79 percent of black voters said they preferred Kerry, compared with 38 percent of white voters. But less than half of the black voters who support Kerry said they were "very enthusiastic" about his candidacy.
Jesse L. Jackson, who spent a week last month on the campaign trail with Kerry, acknowledged that there is a perception the candidate is not speaking loudly enough to his base. "For too long, Kerry officials depended on fear of Bush rather than the hope in his own progressive ideas and vision," Jackson said. He said Democrats "must be multi-dimensional" and told African American voters that Bush's economic policies and his record of judicial appointments have been detrimental to blacks.
Black voters overwhelmingly tell pollsters that the Iraq war is not worth fighting and that the country has been in worse economic shape since Bush took office. Jackson said Kerry's message that the war in Iraq has sapped our resources for health care, education and jobs in the United States resonated with voters when he and Kerry campaigned in Appalachia over the Labor Day weekend. "We'll be making that message much clearer in the days to come," Jackson said.
David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that focuses on black issues, said that black voters' unease with Kerry's campaign is being fueled partly by polls that show the Democrat trailing. "Remember, for a lot of voters -- including black voters -- their biggest reason for supporting Kerry was that Kerry would be the person who's going to have the best chance of beating George Bush," he said. "So a certain amount of frustration has to do with polls right now that show Bush appears to be winning."
Kerry's good reviews in Thursday's debate may help change some of those perceptions. Janette Williams of Bedford Heights, Ohio, said Kerry's debate performance reinforced her support, but she is worried about his chances of winning because "a lot of people seem apathetic."
"I hope he can do it," she said.
Devona Dolliole, a spokeswoman for the Kerry campaign, said the candidate has engaged, and will continue to engage, black voters on several levels. On Monday, Kerry is to hold a summit in Philadelphia with African American religious leaders from around the country. On Thursday, he is to appear on Black Entertainment Television for a half-hour interview on issues of particular interest to black voters. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are also making special visits to battleground states on Kerry's behalf.
Johnson said his community of 23,000 is crying out for attention. In recent years, foreclosures have spiked; nearby employers, including Ford Motor Co., have cut thousands of jobs; and schools are failing. "I want to hear what [Kerry's] plans are for balancing the budget, to assist families on welfare, to improve No Child Left Behind," he said. "What exactly is his plan? -- be precise and direct. Show me an outcome, even if it's unrealistic. I'm not hearing that consistently . . . because they're talking about the war and how many medals he has."
Johnson, contacted after Thursday night's debate, said he was impressed with Kerry's performance in his first face-off with Bush. But, he said, "I'm still undecided and not excited about the race."