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12.15.09

Are Blacks Abandoning Obama?

Danny Glover, Jesse Jackson, and other activists talk to Lloyd Grove about disappointment in the African-American community with the president’s first year.

Danny Glover heaved a sigh when I asked him recently what he thought of President Obama’s performance so far.

It wasn’t a sigh of relief.

“I think the Obama administration has followed the same playbook, to a large extent, almost verbatim, as the Bush administration. I don’t see anything different,” the activist movie actor said of Obama’s policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. “On the domestic side, look here: What’s so clear is that this country from the outset is projecting the interests of wealth and property. Look at the bailout of Wall Street. Why not the bailout of Main Street?”

“He may be just a different face, and that face may happen to be black—and if it were Hillary Clinton, it would happen to be a woman,” says Danny Glover. “But what choices do they have within the structure?”

More in sorrow than in anger, Glover went on: “What choice does he have—in four years, eight years? Let’s just call a spade a spade. Really. There are no choices out there. He may be just a different face, and that face may happen to be black—and if it were Hillary Clinton, it would happen to be a woman—but what choices do they have within the structure?”

Reihan Salam: Obama Is the Left’s Worst Enemy Glover is among a growing chorus of African-American opinion leaders who are publicly and privately expressing varying degrees of resignation, disappointment, and outright anger concerning a presidency on which so many hopes have ridden. Who can forget the iconic image of the tear-streaked Rev. Jesse Jackson—who in 1984 and 1988 waged formidable campaigns of his own for the Democratic presidential nomination—as he stood overcome with emotion amid the jubilant crowd at Chicago’s Grant Park as Obama gave his victory speech?

These days Jackson is decidedly dry-eyed.

“Let me distinguish African-American support for the president from the need to challenge policies and protect our interests,” Jackson said. He argues that vocal and effective activism on Obama’s left flank could alter the political dynamic and help him accomplish such goals as health-care reform, job creation, and stricter regulation of Wall Street—in much the same way that civil-rights marches in the South, and the media attention they received, captured the nation’s moral imagination and helped Lyndon Johnson pass landmark legislation in the mid-1960s. “But this doesn’t always turn on a race-based analysis,” Jackson cautioned. “It doesn’t always have to be a function of animus” of one African American for another.

Yet in recent weeks, such prominent voices as Rep. John Conyers, the powerful chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and New York Times columnist Charles Blow have been among those taking shots at Obama over his policies, rhetoric, and political positioning.

“A lot of people are pissed off out there,” said one well-known political player who slams the president for embarrassing African-American Gov. David Paterson of New York by trying to shove him out of next year’s Democratic primary election in favor of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, and campaigning vigorously for New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine’s unsuccessful reelection race while ignoring African-American candidate Bill Thompson’s closer-than-expected mayoral bid against Mike Bloomberg. “Thompson could have won that race,” says this politico, who—for the moment, anyway—is keeping his powder dry and declining to criticize the president on the record.

Conyers, in a remarkable outburst to The Hill newspaper, recounted how he cut Obama off a few weeks ago when the president phoned to demand an explanation for the congressman’s blunt criticisms of the troop surge in Afghanistan (“he’s getting bad advice from clowns”), Obama’s compromises on health-care reform (“bowing down” to the “nutty right wing”), and his alleged mishandling of the promised prison shutdown at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

“He called me and told me that he heard that I was demeaning him and I had to explain to him that it wasn’t anything personal, it was an honest difference on the issues,” Conyers told The Hill. “And he said, ‘Well, let’s talk about it.’ ” But the 80-year-old Conyers informed the president that he was in no mood to chat. “I’ve been saying I don’t agree with him on Afghanistan, I think he screwed up on health-care reform, on Guantánamo and kicking Greg off,” Conyers added, referring to the forced resignation of White House counsel Gregory Craig over the Guantánamo prison issue.

The New York Times’ Blow, in his Dec. 4 column, noted the president’s surprising lack of empathy for blacks suffering disproportionately from the dire effects of recession.

“There was an expectation, particularly among African Americans, that the first African-American president would at least be vocal about feeling their pain,” Blow said last week on MSNBC’s Hardball. “I think that has not been the case. The president has given a couple of speeches and he has been very heavy on the stick and not very heavy with the carrot… Just in the inability for him to commiserate with that group of people, people feel a bit deflated… He said he’s not going to focus separately on African-American issues at all. That let a lot of people down.”

These sentiments are mirrored in recent polls suggesting that while overall support for Obama among black voters continues to be overwhelming, hovering in the 90 percent range, the intensity of that support appears to be diminishing—a trend that could end up affecting black turnout in next year’s congressional midterm elections and possibly even the presidential election of 2012.

A breakout of black voters in Washington Post surveys over the past eight months shows that those who “strongly” approve of Obama fell from 85 to 69 percent, while his disapproval rating quintupled—from 2 to 11 percent. Admittedly, that’s still very low number, but it’s evidently moving in the wrong direction.

Senior research associate David Bositis, of the African-American-oriented Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, says record black turnout was among the factors that delivered six key swing states to Obama, totaling 107 electoral votes, in the 2008 election—Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

Bositis predicted that black turnout for Obama will remain strong in 2012—and that the president enjoys significantly higher approval ratings among black voters than African-American members of Congress in their own districts. But independent pollster Matthew Towery, a former Republican strategist, said even a slight diminution in turnout could have an outsize impact.

“In a state like Florida, which Obama won by two percentage points, a falloff of 10 percent in black turnout might have changed the result and given the state to McCain,” said Towery, who recently conducted a statewide poll showing the president with an astonishing 35 percent disapproval rating among African Americans in Georgia. Towery cautioned that the startling statistics might be a peculiarity, owing to the brutal economic downturn in a state that was only recently booming.

“My best guess is that the current black polling numbers for Obama are somewhat unusual in Georgia because black professionals and the black middle class here have had to get in the unemployment line alongside younger workers who've only recently moved to the city and state; and many of them, too, have seen their houses foreclosed on,” Towery wrote in a recent column. He added: “Will government’s apparent inability to effect the promised positive 'change' begin to fan discontent in other black communities across the nation? Or will this encroaching uneasiness with Obama stay limited to this one snapshot in time in this one Southern state? We can't yet know, but the early signs are there.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.