New Programs Targeting Urban Poverty May Hinder Obama’s Minority Support


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I’ve written in the past about President Obama’s uncanny ability to find the sour spot on any issue, from the peace process, to Afghanistan to the debt ceiling. He is now in danger of finding the same spot on race. The Washington Post reports that in the wake of increased criticism of the president, the Obama administration is rolling out new programs targeting urban poverty and announcing them before Black communities in Detroit and DC:

The new approach is subtle, but it is significant to African American lawmakers who have been pressing for the change since early spring. One proposal would extend aid to communities with long-standing poverty problems. Another would help the long-term unemployed.

Both ideas would help mostly minorities, said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. In steering clear of the overt race label, he added, “it’s not as in-your-face.”

“They are paying closer attention to what’s going on in the urban core of the major cities,” Cleaver said.

Several black lawmakers said they think the White House is considering additional targeted steps to boost urban communities as part of the jobs package the president plans to release shortly after labour Day.

This announcement comes during a bad month for the Administration within the Black community. While his approval numbers remain high overall, Black confidence in the President’s handling of the economy has fallen sharply. Obama has recently come under fire from the Congressional Black Caucus and a number of other Black organisations: it appears that the honeymoon is over for the first Black president. Indeed, many Democrats are beginning to worry about his declining political fortunes:

The race-avoidance strategy served President Obama well, helping him attract support from many whites while also mobilizing African Americans energized by the powerful symbol of a black commander in chief.

But a soaring jobless rate among African Americans and a newfound comfort by black lawmakers to criticise Obama’s economic policies are prompting the White House to recalibrate — and to focus more directly on the struggles of black America.

The shift comes amid a growing concern among some Democrats that the stubborn economic conditions in minority communities might hamper efforts by Obama’s reelection campaign to generate the large black voter turnout it needs in key cities to make up for his declining support among white independents.

Managing the complex politics of race has been one of the President’s most important successes.  By running as a national candidate who happened to be Black, he benefited from enthusiasm and record turnout among Blacks without alienating whites.

The meticulously-crafted “postracial” image which served the President so well during the campaign has worn poorly in the messier world of governance.  The country’s poor economic performance makes it harder for the White House to work both sides of the street.  With Black unemployment at Depression levels and Blacks heavily represented among those losing equity and homes in the housing crash, Black politicians and pundits are under increasing pressure to criticise the President — and the politicians in particular need to deliver more aid and lots of it to their constituents.

The President can’t do all that much for them. The GOP majority in the House makes any stimulus difficult; stimulus directed disproportionately toward inner city needs is impossible.  Even fighting hard for more inner city programs and funds risks alienating independent voters, centrists and white blue collar Democrats.  Campaigning for more federal spending in this political climate requires the President to be more ‘non-racial’ than ever.

If the Post story has it right, the White House has opted for a dog whistle strategy: making proposals that Blacks will recognise as beneficial and targeted to their special problems without triggering white backlash.  For that strategy to work, two things have to happen: Blacks have to see results while swing voters and independents don’t notice the President’s new concern.

Neither seems very probable.  The very limited funds the President can reasonably hope to get for the cities are unlikely to have a substantive impact on urban unemployment, and between Fox, Drudge and their allies, the administration is unlikely to escape criticism if it is seen to be shoveling money into what many believe are failed and flawed inner city programs.

Sour spot here we come; the White House seems to moving towards an urban agenda that doesn’t help the cities much but makes it easier for critics to paint the President as a left wing captive of special interest groups.

This post originally appeared on The American Interest.