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President Obama travel just a few blocks south of the White House today to the future site of the new Smithsonian Museum: the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It broke ground today, and Mr. Obama delivered a speech there. We'll hear more about the museum in a few minutes from one of its architects.
First, as NPR's Mara Liasson reports, the president focused on African American history today with an eye towards African-American voters in November.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: At the groundbreaking, Mr. Obama said the new museum would be not just a record of tragedy but a celebration of life.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.
LIASSON: Mr. Obama would have spoken at this groundbreaking no matter what year it occurred or what race he happened to be. But his appearance today, in the midst of his re-election campaign, highlights a shift in his approach to African-American voters. While the president's 2008 campaign tried not to focus on race, this year, says George Mason University Professor Michael Fauntroy, Mr. Obama has decided to make his outreach to the black community more targeted and aggressive.
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. But as we look toward the campaign, we are certainly seeing more of that with - being more sort of socially black, if you will.
LIASSON: That may be a controversial statement, but Fauntroy points to little things like President Obama singing a few bars of Al Green last month or "Sweet Home Chicago" with B.B. King at the White House last night.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET HOME CHICAGO")
B.B. KING: (Singing) Same old place.
OBAMA: (Singing) Sweet home, Chicago.
LIASSON: Some of this is just Mr. Obama letting loose and having fun, but his campaign has a strategy. Earlier this month, the president unveiled an initiative aimed at black voters.
OBAMA: We're announcing the 2012 launch of African Americans for Obama. I don't think there's a better time than African American History Month.
LIASSON: African Americans for Obama is part of the campaign's Operation Vote, which targets individual voting blocs, including Jews, Hispanics, gays and African-Americans.
OBAMA: This campaign is powered by folks at every level, taking ownership where it matters most - around the kitchen table, in barbershops and beauty salons, in your faith community.
LIASSON: Michael Fauntroy says while this kind of targeted outreach may not have been necessary in 2008, it is today.
FAUNTROY: History moves people, but it doesn't move people every time. You look at the economic downturn, the foreclosure crisis, and just the evisceration of black wealth around the country - 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.
LIASSON: The president's approval rating among African-Americans hasn't budged - its still in the '90s. But Fauntroy says what Mr. Obama has to worry about is turnout, particularly in states like North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, where a spike in African-American turnout put Mr. Obama over the top four years ago.
FAUNTROY: It's not enough to get 95, 90 percent, 96 percent of the black vote - he'll get that. The question is, will the pie be the same size or larger?
LIASSON: And so the president's message to African-American supporters is not too different than what he had to say today, as he compared the new African American Museum of History and Culture to the other great institutions on the National Mall.
OBAMA: 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. 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.
LIASSON: The president and his campaign don't plan to until Election Day.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.
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