Obama Takes New Approach To Black Voters For 2012

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama listen as a choir performs during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. i i

hide captionPresident Obama and first lady Michelle Obama listen as a choir performs during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama listen as a choir performs during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama listen as a choir performs during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

At Wednesday's groundbreaking ceremony, President Obama said the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., would be not just a record of tragedy, but a celebration of life.

"It is on this spot — alongside the monuments to those who gave birth to this nation, and those who worked so hard to perfect it — that generations will remember the sometimes difficult, often inspirational, but always central role that African-Americans have played in the life of our country," he said.

Any president of any party would have spoken at the museum's groundbreaking. But the appearance Wednesday of the nation's first African-American president, in the midst of his re-election campaign, highlighted a shift in Obama's approach to African-American voters.

While Obama tried not to focus on race in his 2008 campaign, he has decided to make his outreach to the black community more targeted and aggressive this year, says George Mason University professor Michael Fauntroy.

"What he's got to do is some of the things that he's begun to do — and that is to speak more directly to African-Americans," Fauntroy says. "As we look toward the campaign, we are certainly seeing more of that ... being more sort of socially black, if you will."

More On The Museum And Its Collection

  • An architectural rendering of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is expected to open on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2015.
    Hide caption
    An architectural rendering of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is expected to open on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2015.
    Courtesy Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup/Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Harriet Tubman's ShawlHistorian Charles Blockson donated 39 items to the museum, including a shawl owned by Harriet Tubman, the well-known abolitionist and humanitarian.
    Hide caption
    Harriet Tubman's ShawlHistorian Charles Blockson donated 39 items to the museum, including a shawl owned by Harriet Tubman, the well-known abolitionist and humanitarian.
    Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Child's PortraitMost images of African-Americans in the early 20th century are portraits of poverty. Museum director Lonnie Bunch came across a remarkable collection of "cabinet cards" — portraits of middle-class blacks who were otherwise "invisible to most people."
    Hide caption
    Child's PortraitMost images of African-Americans in the early 20th century are portraits of poverty. Museum director Lonnie Bunch came across a remarkable collection of "cabinet cards" — portraits of middle-class blacks who were otherwise "invisible to most people."
    Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • A Bill Of Sale For A SlaveThis is the original receipt for a 16-year-old girl named Polly who was sold for $600. "What really hits me about this document is it starkly reminds us that these people were considered property," Bunch says. "Suddenly you realize that this paper really is a way into the story of this woman's life."
    Hide caption
    A Bill Of Sale For A SlaveThis is the original receipt for a 16-year-old girl named Polly who was sold for $600. "What really hits me about this document is it starkly reminds us that these people were considered property," Bunch says. "Suddenly you realize that this paper really is a way into the story of this woman's life."
    Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Leg ShacklesThese slave shackles were likely crafted in Africa rather than Europe because they are relatively cumbersome to close and open. Europeans would have instead closed the shackles with a padlock. The size of the shackle loops indicates they were used on legs rather than arms.
    Hide caption
    Leg ShacklesThese slave shackles were likely crafted in Africa rather than Europe because they are relatively cumbersome to close and open. Europeans would have instead closed the shackles with a padlock. The size of the shackle loops indicates they were used on legs rather than arms.
    Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Thomas H. Porter Slave ButtonsThomas H. Porter, a slave trader based in Barbados, sold slaves along the coasts of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and the Carolinas, circa 1815-1830. He attached these buttons to the enslaved person's clothing during auctions.
    Hide caption
    Thomas H. Porter Slave ButtonsThomas H. Porter, a slave trader based in Barbados, sold slaves along the coasts of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and the Carolinas, circa 1815-1830. He attached these buttons to the enslaved person's clothing during auctions.
    Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • John Brown And Frederick Douglas LettersIn letters written to his wife while he was visiting Frederick Douglas, John Brown expresses his commitment to abolition, but also his longing to see her and his family. Douglas adds a greeting and reassuring words.
    Hide caption
    John Brown And Frederick Douglas LettersIn letters written to his wife while he was visiting Frederick Douglas, John Brown expresses his commitment to abolition, but also his longing to see her and his family. Douglas adds a greeting and reassuring words.
    Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Cross Burning In North CarolinaIn the early 1960s, University of North Carolina student Jim Wallace, who was not black, photographed a Ku Klux Klan rally and cross burning to document what he thought was a great evil, Bunch says.
    Hide caption
    Cross Burning In North CarolinaIn the early 1960s, University of North Carolina student Jim Wallace, who was not black, photographed a Ku Klux Klan rally and cross burning to document what he thought was a great evil, Bunch says.
    Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Glass Shards And Shotgun ShellJoan Trumpauer Mulholland gathered these artifacts from the gutter outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., during the funeral of the young girls killed in the 1963 bombing. Mulholland, a member the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the '60s, donated several objects to the museum.
    Hide caption
    Glass Shards And Shotgun ShellJoan Trumpauer Mulholland gathered these artifacts from the gutter outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., during the funeral of the young girls killed in the 1963 bombing. Mulholland, a member the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the '60s, donated several objects to the museum.
    Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • A Sign About Care At A Louisiana HospitalA carefully hand-lettered sign that once hung at the Lallie Kemp Charity Hospital in Independence, La., delineates the days "colored" patients could receive medical services.
    Hide caption
    A Sign About Care At A Louisiana HospitalA carefully hand-lettered sign that once hung at the Lallie Kemp Charity Hospital in Independence, La., delineates the days "colored" patients could receive medical services.
    Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • J.C. Deagan Chicago Vintage Railroad Dinner Bell ChimesEmployment as a railroad porter was considered one of the most stable and prestigious occupations open to African-Americans during the early- and mid-20th century. This engraved dinner chime was presented as a retirement gift to Leo LaRue, a porter who served executives for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in the 1960s and ...
    Hide caption
    J.C. Deagan Chicago Vintage Railroad Dinner Bell ChimesEmployment as a railroad porter was considered one of the most stable and prestigious occupations open to African-Americans during the early- and mid-20th century. This engraved dinner chime was presented as a retirement gift to Leo LaRue, a porter who served executives for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in the 1960s and '70s.
    Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Bo Diddley's HatBo Diddley was born in McComb, Miss., in 1928 and became one of rock music's principal architects in the 1950s.
    Hide caption
    Bo Diddley's HatBo Diddley was born in McComb, Miss., in 1928 and became one of rock music's principal architects in the 1950s.
    Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Cassius Clay's Head ProtectorThis is an Everlast head protector from the 5th Street Gym in Miami, where Clay trained for his first fight with Sonny Liston. "As soon as he defeated Sonny Liston, he announced that he became a member of the Nation of Islam, became Muhammad Ali," Bunch says.
    Hide caption
    Cassius Clay's Head ProtectorThis is an Everlast head protector from the 5th Street Gym in Miami, where Clay trained for his first fight with Sonny Liston. "As soon as he defeated Sonny Liston, he announced that he became a member of the Nation of Islam, became Muhammad Ali," Bunch says.
    Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • "Whether your family's been in this country 200 years or 20 minutes," Bunch says, "I want you to come to this museum and say, 'I get it. This is not a black story. This is my story. This is the American story.'" Above, an architectural rendering shows the interior of the museum.
    Hide caption
    "Whether your family's been in this country 200 years or 20 minutes," Bunch says, "I want you to come to this museum and say, 'I get it. This is not a black story. This is my story. This is the American story.'" Above, an architectural rendering shows the interior of the museum.
    Courtesy Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup/Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

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Targeted Outreach

That statement may be controversial, but Fauntroy points to little things — like when the president sang a few bars of Al Green last month or "Sweet Home Chicago" with B.B. King at the White House on Tuesday night.

Some of this is just the president letting loose and having fun, but his campaign has a strategy. Earlier this month, Obama unveiled an initiative aimed at black voters.

"This month we're announcing the 2012 launch of African-Americans for Obama," he said in a video. "I don't think there's a better time than African-American History Month to consider the tremendous progress we've made through the sacrifices of so many."

African-Americans for Obama is part of the campaign's Operation Vote, which targets individual voting blocs, including Jews, Hispanics, gays and African-Americans.

"This campaign is powered by folks at every level, taking ownership where it matters most — around the kitchen table, in barber shops and beauty salons, in your faith community, at work or at school," Obama said.

Fauntroy says while this kind of targeted outreach may not have been necessary in 2008, it is today.

"History moves people, but it doesn't move people every time," he says. "You look at the economic downturn, the foreclosure crisis, and the just evisceration of black wealth around the country — you know there are a number of reasons why African-Americans would be less than excited to spend time concerning themselves with voting on Election Day, and he's got to overcome those things."

Concerns About Turnout

The president's approval rating among African-Americans hasn't budged — it's still in the 90s. But Fauntroy says what Obama has to worry about is turnout, particularly in states like North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, where a spike in African-American turnout put Obama over the top four years ago.

"It's not enough to get 95-96 percent of the black vote — he'll get that. The question is will the pie be the same size or larger?" Fauntroy says.

And so the president's message to African-American supporters is not too different from what he had to say Wednesday — as he compared the new National Museum of African American History and Culture to the other great institutions on the National Mall.

"Just like the Air and Space Museum challenges us to set our sights higher, or the Natural History Museum encourages us to look closer, or the Holocaust Museum calls us to fight persecution wherever we find it, this museum should inspire us as well," Obama said. "It should stand as proof that the most important things in life rarely come quickly or easily. It should remind us that although we have yet to reach the mountaintop, we cannot stop climbing."

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