Black Voters May Stay Away From Polls In November

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Black voters are not happy with President Obama's economic policies. African-Americans have been disproportionately affected by unemployment during this recession, and political experts are saying that this will result in low black voter turnout in November. President Obama has spent the last week and a half working to energize black voters. NPR's David Greene talks to Lester Spence, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He says that's not the way to get black voters to the polls in November, and that President Obama needs to do more to address issues of unemployment and poverty.

DAVID GREENE, host

President Obama's approval rating with black voters remains sky-high. But what's worrying Democratic leaders is an apparent lack of enthusiasm among African-Americans and a feeling of disconnect with the White House. That's a growing concern for the party as they seek to shore up the base heading into a very difficult midterm election season.

Last weekend, Mr. Obama made an appearance in front of a black audience, trying to reignite some of the enthusiasm from 2008.

President BARACK OBAMA: I need everybody to go back to your neighborhoods, to go back to your workplaces, to go to churches and go to the barbershops and go to the beauty shops and tell them we've got more work to do.

GREENE: President Obama speaking this past weekend at an event for the Congressional Black Caucus.

Joining us to talk about the president and the black vote is Lester Spence. He's a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Professor, welcome to the program.

Professor LESTER SPENCE (Political Science, Johns Hopkins University): Thank you for having me.

GREENE: So tell me what has Democrats so worried that African-Americans might not come out and vote in November?

Prof. SPENCE: I think they understand that for African-Americans, they always have two political choices. They can either choose to vote for the Democratic Party, you know, which most of them do, or they can choose to stay home. And what they're concerned about - given their high unemployment rates, given that Obama is not on the ballot and given that Obama has not really done much to deal with these claims - they're concerned that a number of them are just going to stay home and sit it out.

GREENE: But why, when he does talk about things like unemployment and things like, you know, poverty and so forth, why do black voters feel like he's not speaking to them?

Prof. SPENCE: Because they can see what's going on around them. Right? So he can say, well, times are hard, but we're working through it. And then black people like me - I'm a middle-class black person. I'm a professor. I can look on my block and see, oh, well, so-and-so still doesn't have a job. So-and-so is still being forced to leave their home.

I've dealt with this stuff myself, and I can see that there are no policies that Obama has created to change that stuff.

GREENE: There was one instance that caught my eye. A woman named Velma Hart, African-American. She identified herself as a middle-class veteran living in Washington, D.C. And she had some pretty choice words for the president at a CNBC televised town hall this past Monday.

Ms. VELMA HART: I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for...

Pres. OBAMA: Right.

Ms. HART: ...and deeply disappointed with where we are right now. I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I'm one of those people, and I'm waiting, sir. I'm...

GREENE: Professor, how common is that view among black voters?

Prof. SPENCE: It's more common than the Democratic Party would like, and that's their challenge. This is the first time I've heard what she said with my own ears. And literally, my heart's dropping because that is exactly how I feel. It isn't as if Obama was elected saying, well, listen, the times are going to be hard. I'm kind of going to be like this other guy but just a little bit different.

He himself said that his model was Ronald Reagan. But what Ronald Reagan did was he changed our ideas about how government was supposed to work.

GREENE: Isn't the president's challenge very, very dicey, though? I mean, if he were start talking about the economy often, within the lens of the black community, saying, you know, I want to reduce poverty, I want to reduce unemployment in black communities, I mean, isn't there a very serious risk that he could lose support among moderate voters and, you know, across the country who might feel that he's focusing on just one community?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SPENCE: Like he has their support now? So this is the argument, right? So what Ronald Reagan was effectively able to do was argue for trickle-down economics. That is, if you help people at the top, what's going to happen is by helping them at the top it's going to trickle down to the rest of us.

What I argue for is the opposite of that. He can talk about a kind of a trickle up. When I help people at the bottom, it helps everybody. Right? And that's the thing that I think is being lost in this.

It's not that we're asking Obama to deal specifically with black people's interest and nobody else's. What we're asking him to do is stand up for black interest, because as he stands up for our interests he stands up for everybody's interests.

GREENE: So if we sort of take this as a whole, the president struggling to sort of connect with and turn out the black community, I mean, what lessons should he take right now as we head into this fall?

Prof. SPENCE: Obama had a number of people who would have organized for Obama, would have fought for his policies, called their representatives. And what he basically did was he sat on them. You have to have black people involved at every step of the way, both in articulating policies for their interests and then creating processes where they think they're engaged. And they'll die for you if you do that.

GREENE: Professor Spence, thank you for joining us.

Prof. SPENCE: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: Lester Spence, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and author of the forthcoming book "Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics."

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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