Who can forget the way Democratic strategist James Carville sparked former President Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign with a slogan that propelled him to the White House: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
But is President Barack Obama’s message on the economy resonating with voters? A recent ABC News/Washington Post survey says it is not. They found that 54 percent of swing voters disapprove of the president’s economic policies, while independents oppose Mitt Romney’s economic stance by 47 percent.
However, the president’s bullish message on the economy has Democrats like Carville worried. He believes voters have major concerns.
“I’m worried that when the White House and the campaign talks about the progress that’s being made, people take that as a signal that they think that things are fine, and people don’t think that or believe that,” Carville said.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney seized on that theme, campaigning in the swing state of Florida.
“People across America are having a hard time. The president doesn’t understand how his policies have made things so hard for the American people,” Romney said. “It’s finally time to have a president who’s in touch with what’s happening in America and I am. I’ll bring back America’s strength.”
In a speech earlier in the week, the president acknowledged that times aren’t so great for everyone.
“Does that mean I, we, are satisfied? Absolutely not,” Obama said.
Then, he returned to blaming the administration before him.
“They ran up the tab, and are trying to pass the bill to me,” he said.
But Carville says Romney wasn’t part of the Bush administration, and the president needs to spend more time addressing the voters’ concerns.
“They want to be reassured he understands the depth of the problem — and that he has a plan to deal with the deterioration of the middle class in this country,” Carville said. “That’s what people want to hear.”
Carville is not alone, as Democrats grapple with the president’s campaign strategy and say he needs to do a better job making his case for re-election against Romney.
Asked about Obama’s comment last week that the “private sector is doing fine,” CBS News Political Director John Dickerson said the gaffe “gets traction in part because the president’s approval rating on the economy, his approval ratings are bad.”
Many African Americans — who have been hardest hit in the midst of the nation’s struggling economy — continue to overwhelmingly support President Obama. There are, however, Blacks who believe the president has not done enough.
“He has consistently shown me that he wants to impress white folks,” said Theodore Cummings, a Philadelphia based lawyer. “Where are the jobs? Where is the outreach? It’s not just him — it’s all of these so-called Black politicians we have put into office, including our mayor (Michael Nutter). From where I sit, and I have a great job, I’ve been blessed, I don’t see a concerted effort to hire Blacks and Hispanics or people of color period. With that being said … I’m still going to vote for him. After all, what am I supposed to do? We have to support the brother, don’t we?”
The debate over political strategy stems from the blunt reality that Black America is drowning in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Despite all the querying over whether or not the U.S. economy is technically in or out of recession, Black unemployment, home foreclosures, evictions and bankruptcies continue to grow. Just last March, when the Labor Department reported with enthusiasm the addition of 162,000 jobs to the economy, it was simultaneously reported that Black unemployment had grown from 15.8 percent to 16.5 percent.
“This is a way for the Romney campaign to kind of keep leaning on that key point, that the president’s stewardship of the economy is wrong. And that here he is, even this late in the game, he doesn’t recognize the private sector is still hurting, the Obama folks would say of course he knows (people are) hurting,” Dickerson said.
The overview of unemployment doesn’t begin to convey the extent of the jobs crisis in Black America. Officially, the nation’s highest unemployment rate is in Detroit, which is 83 percent Black — joblessness is a staggering 28 percent. Unemployment on the mostly Black south and west sides of Chicago comes in second at 22 percent. The top 10 areas in the country where unemployment is concentrated include Black neighborhoods in Toledo, Atlanta and St. Louis.
The rapid loss of jobs means that greater numbers of African Americans are losing their health care, which will only worsen disparities in health care between Blacks and whites that already exist. In 2007, when Black unemployment was approximately 10 percent, 20 percent of Blacks were without health insurance. With Black unemployment growing steadily today, the numbers of the Black uninsured are sure to rise, too.
Unemployment also impacts rising levels of poverty in Black communities. A recent report found that 90 percent of Black children are part of families that will use food stamps by the time they are 20 years old. All told, 40 percent of Black children live in poverty, according to the government’s official statistics. According to the census, a full quarter of African Americans were living in poverty in 2007 — two years before the current unemployment crisis.
Rising unemployment is also exacerbating the foreclosure crisis in Black neighborhoods across the country. While foreclosures are not tracked by race, the number of Black homeowners who face the threat of losing their homes is believed to be twice that of whites.
A study conducted by the Woodstock Institute in Chicago found an 18 percent jump in foreclosures across the city in 2008, but most were concentrated in African-American neighborhoods like Englewood and West Englewood. In these two neighborhoods alone, there were 725 foreclosures in a nine-month period. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, 53 percent of African Americans who bought homes in 2006 have already lost or will lose their homes to foreclosure in the next few years, compared to 22 percent of white borrowers facing foreclosure.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama’s focus on racial disparities waxed and waned, growing stronger when he needed to shore up Black support, weakening when Black voters got behind him en masse and after his victory in the Iowa caucuses affirmed him as a viable national candidate. His early discussions of injustice gave way to calls for policies to benefit all Americans, and tough-love speeches for African Americans.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new crop of Black politicians running in majority-white districts, cities and states emerged. Their campaign strategies entailed building support among skeptical white voters while trying to keep their African-American base intact. Politicians such as former Governor Doug Wilder of Virginia, former Seattle Mayor Norman Rice and former New York Mayor David Dinkins ran campaigns that largely de-emphasized race, stressing the need for racial unity and advocating policies that they said would benefit everyone, rather than any particular group.
In an interview with USA Today, Obama responded to a question about Black joblessness, saying, “I will tell you that I think the most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period — and that is get the economy going again and get people hiring again ... I think it’s a mistake to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States, rather than to think that we are all in this together, and we are all going to get out of this together.”
Zack Burgess is the enterprise writer for The Tribune. He is a freelance writer and editor who covers culture, politics and sports. He can be contacted at zackburgess.com and followed on Twitter @zackburgess1.