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A strong 12-month run with ‘minorities’ may be second-term key for President Obama

  • Written by Jason Johnson
This time President Obama has a problem with black and brown folk, and this is a problem that – in many respects – if he doesn’t solve will be more crucial to his campaign success than even unemployment. 
 Dr. Jason Johnson

It would seem that President Barack Obama just can’t get himself a break. Just when it looks like there have been four straight months of unemployment going down, and he managed to put together a deal on the budget that wouldn’t lead to a government shutdown, Gallup releases a poll that shows he has a great deal of work still to do in order to get his job back in 2012.

This time President Obama has a problem with black and brown folk, and this is a problem that – in many respects – if he doesn’t solve will be more crucial to his campaign success than even unemployment.

According to Gallup’s most recent poll, the President’s approval rating amongst African Americans is down to about 84 percent, which is still higher than any other group but significantly down from the 90-plus percent approval he had in his first year or so in office.

Latino support has also fallen to 54 percent, which again, is much higher than his overall approval ratings, which hovered around 47 percent for most of 2010. As of the middle of April, President Obama’s approval remains steadfastly at 47 percent, which puts him higher than Bill Clinton (46 percent), Ronald Reagan (41 percent) and of course Jimmy Carter (37 percent) at this point in their respective careers.

Both Bush’s were experiencing approval ratings in the 70’s at this point of their presidencies because both were launching wars at this point. Amazing how that works to raise approval levels. The catch is that unlike any of the previous presidents, President Obama owes his success to his ability to not just get a good percentage of minority votes but also to get those minorities to turn out in significant numbers in critical locations. Any slippage in that intimate dance between approval and turnout might spell doom for any chance he has to succeed.

So the question still on the minds of many, and no doubt the President’s own staff is: Why are these numbers so low?

The obvious answer is the economy. We are no longer in a jobless recovery, but there is no doubt that as jobs trickle back, minorities in particular are still not seeing any major changes. African-American unemployment is horribly high and in some urban areas up to 30 percent of minority men are without work. Such numbers would dull the love towards any president.

However these dips go even deeper. The larger problem that President Obama has is the perception that he just hasn’t done enough, even symbolically, to show that he has a unique understanding of the black plight in America. It sounds silly at first, but when is the last time we saw him “brush the dirt off his shoulder” or shoot some hoops.

See, the only events that we have seen Present Obama in that have any racial importance or symbolism in the minds of many have to do with him capitulating to white racism or stumbling over obvious racial mines. The Skip Gates Beer Summit and Shirley Sherrod debacle are both instances where his handling of race in America were so clumsy and focus-group driven that it has understandably driven a wedge between him and the very people he needs to get ginned up again to win next year.

Where is the harsh retort? Where is the direct refutation or acknowledgment? Where is the president uttering the words “institutional racism” in connection with public schools or industry?

Just like swing, white-Christian voters wanted to know that President Obama was a down-on-his-knees Christian, African Americans want to know if he is still aware of the immense struggles that we are facing in this long and abusive recession. So far, while he’s done incredible work on the policy end, the symbolic victories seem few and far between. If people don’t believe the president is on their side fighting for or empathizing with their needs, they won’t turn out for him.

In the 2008 elections President Obama won about 43 percent of the white vote, 96 percent of the African-American vote, 70-plus percent of the Latino vote and in the high 60’s of the Asian vote and proceeded to beat John McCain 52 to 45 in the popular vote. If he had won those exact same percentages of the white and minority vote in 1988, he would have lost the election. That is how much more important the enthusiasm and voting power minorities have has become in only 20 years.

President Obama needs to do something to lift his approval levels in the next 12 months or he might be looking for another job come November

(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in campaigns and elections, pop culture, and the politics of sports. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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