Barack Obama's African-American charm offensive

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When the Congressional Black Caucus held its “For the People” jobs tour last month, the media takeaway was that the tour was a subtle rebuke of the Barack Obama administration. California Rep. Maxine Waters grabbed headlines with her calls for black Americans to “unleash” the CBC to have a more forceful “conversation” with the nation’s first black president on the subject of jobs. During the Miami leg of the five-city tour, Waters pointedly demanded that an Obama administration official, dispatched by the White House to lend support to the tour, use the word “black” on stage, as he tried to make his remarks.

Meanwhile, a “Poverty Tour” by Princeton Professor Cornel West and his protege, media veteran Tavis Smiley, included more overt attacks on Obama for what West called a greater fealty to Wall Street (West called him a “black mascot of Wall Street”) than to the poor, and a failure to directly address black people’s suffering in the Great Recession.

The takeaway, at least in the media, is that these and other outbursts of black anger at the president indicate a broader Obama problem with his most loyal base. The idea is that if Obama loses support among African-Americans, he faces tough re-election prospects in 2012.

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Black voters gave Obama 96 percent of their votes in 2008. And despite his being their second choice — blacks had supported Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee by two to one margins early in the presidential nominating contest, based on strong support among African-Americans for former President Bill Bill Clinton. Back in 2007, Obama was an emerging star among political insiders, but a mystery to most blacks, many of whom doubted any black candidate could win the White House.

And during that early period in his quest for the White House, Obama often faced subtle, and not-so-subtle charges that he wasn’t “black enough” or didn’t have credibility with black people — he was too young to have been involved in the civil rights movement, and though he had worked as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, he had often bucked the black establishment in that most storied center of traditional black politics, beating a popular black politico to enter the state Senate, and running unsuccessfully for Congress against former Black Panther Bobby Rush (and losing.)

Some prominent African-Americans, including Smiley, were furious what they considered Obama’s jettisoning of his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, after incendiary statements by Wright leaked on the Internet.

And yet, Obama managed during the 2008 campaign to overwhelm both Clinton and her supporters in the CBC, along with the black civil rights and media establishment (BET founder Bob Johnson, a prominent Hillary Clinton supporter, even referenced drug use to attack the then-candidate), winning over the vast majority of black voters.Three years later, with his poll numbers buffeted by the struggling economy, the Obama White House is responding to vocal criticism from some of the same black critics, and the media narrative that black support may be waning, with a sometimes below-the-radar campaign to shore up his African-American base.

The Obama White House sent one or more administration officials to each stop on the CBC jobs tour, even as the criticism from CBC members mounted.

In the last several weeks, Obama has given interviews to Tom Joyner and appeared on the morning show of the largest urban station in Chicago, WVON (Read a report and listen to excerpts of the interview on TheGrio, here.)

On Monday, the president made a surprise appearance at a White House round table discussion with five administration officials and four black media outlets, including TheGrio.

In addition to the public charm offensive, with events that are sometimes not listed on the president’s official schedule, Obama has used subtle cues to communicate his ongoing concern about issues that are of particular import to African-Americans. The administration revived the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which under President George W. Bush had turned its attention to alleged voter fraud; increased funding to historically black colleges, and signed legislation reducing the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine possession — a disparity that has led to an overflow of incarcerated black men.

Also last month, the president added a Norman Rockwell painting to the West Wing art collection. Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” depicts the desegregation of an all-white school by a six-year-old African-American girl, Ruby Bridges, in 1960. It is the first painting depicting an African-American to hang in the White House.

But because the administration rarely communicates its outreach or the president’s sentiments about African-Americans in public, they are often unknown, even to most black Americans.

That provides an opening for the president’s black critics.

But their criticism hasn’t dented his support among black Americans more broadly — at least not so far.

The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Obama’s support among African-Americans at 92 percent, with five percent disapproving. That’s an increase from July, when his approval-disapproval ratio among black Americans stood at 83-13.