Black voters still support Obama but are ambivalent about midterm elections

By Nia-Malika Henderson and Perry Bacon Jr.Washington Post Staff Writers Sunday, July 11, 2010; A03

KANSAS CITY, MO. -- Curtis Adams, who owns Curtis A's barbershop here and who is also the establishment's senior political analyst, is a close observer of President Obama. This is something of a full-time job itself at Curtis A's, a gathering place in a black neighborhood five miles from downtown. All day every day, men (and occasionally women) come for a trim and wind up lingering to argue about jobs and the oil spill and the war in Iraq.

But mostly jobs. "If Obama was in this chair right here, I would tell him to give me a job. That's what I would ask for," said customer E.J. Jones one recent afternoon. Jones has worked off and on since he was let go from an Army ammunition plant in 2008.

The recession was especially rough on Kansas City's black community, where unemployment is 15 percent, nearly three times the rate for whites. Adams pointed to the empty chairs in his shop. He's down 75 customers a week. Of Obama, he said: "That man has a hell of a workload, and Bush left a hell of a mess. I like what he's doing. But I can't feel it."

Despite his frustration with the slow pace of the recovery, Adams, who has portraits of the first family on the walls of his shop, doesn't think Obama bears the blame for his troubles. And neither do most black Americans. Just the opposite: Polls show that 90 percent of African Americans believe Obama is doing a good job, far higher than the president's overall 46 percent approval rating. Obama's popularity has dropped among nearly every segment of the population -- old, young, Republican, Democrat, white, Latino. Yet blacks still overwhelmingly support him, even though they are among those who have lost the most since he was elected.

"We understand the difficulty of being a black man in his position, because of our close proximity to race and how it affects our lives, so we are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt," said Rodney Knott, who runs a fatherhood initiative and blogs on local issues. "Black folks are taking this personal because we identify with him so much. It's like somebody in our family. I can talk about them, but you better not."

Airick Leonard West, who heads the Kansas City School Board, agrees. "Maybe other people thought he had a magic wand and went to Hogwarts and thought, 'Oh, he's black so he's going to help all the black people,' " he said. "If that's what you're looking for, that ain't coming."

The political potential to be found in devotion this deep is very much on the minds of a president and a Democratic Partyanxious about losing control of the House or Senate in the fall. When Obama administration and Democratic officials travel here this week to address the annual convention of the NAACP, they will be looking for ways to turn black enthusiasm for the president into votes for his party.

That is no simple thing. The loyalty many blacks feel to Obama does not always spill over to other Democratic candidates.

Take Missouri, where blacks make up about 12 percent of the population. Obama narrowly lost the state in 2008, although blacks turned out in record numbers. This year, Missouri's secretary of state, Democrat Robin Carnahan, is running to replace retiring Republican Sen. Christopher S. Bond.

Carnahan is unlikely to win, however, unless black voters once again rush out to the polls. Without Obama on the ballot, Democratic strategists are having a difficult time generating much interest among blacks. Last week, the president held a rally for Carnahan and attended a fundraiser for her campaign. But in conversations with several African Americans here, support for Carnahan seemed lukewarm at best.

"I am just starting to tune in" to the campaign, said Jamekia Kendrix, 31, who has seen several homes foreclosed on her block. She had more to say about Obama. She said she voted for him and still strongly supports him, though she wishes he would spend more on education and reviving the economy and less on war. "He is doing the best he can," she said. "He's not always going to do what I think he should."

Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster, warned that not even politically engaged black voters like Kendrix are necessarily going to turn out for Democrats in the fall. "These are Obama voters. These are not Democratic voters," he said. "They are leaning toward Democrats in their views, but these surge voters are not a part of the traditional Democratic voting bloc. That's the big X factor here. We can't turn surge voters out by two weeks of black radio."

To that end, the Democratic National Committee has launched a $50 million nationwide effort to try to lure these "surge voters" back to the polls in November.

As the Democrats worry about this fall, Obama's strategists are looking to 2012.

Prominent black public figures such as commentator Tavis Smiley and scholar Michael Eric Dyson have accused Obama of not doing enough to create jobs in black communities. And some black academics are looking more critically at Obama's reluctance to talk about race.

"I'm not saying he should say, 'Here's the black agenda.' That would be political suicide," said John Powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. "But I think he needs to help people understand to be mindful of these things. His strategy seems to be, 'Let's be colorblind, let's ignore it.' "

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, said that the intellectual elite will probably grow more critical of Obama and that support among working-class blacks could falter.

"People are contrasting Obama to the prior administration, so they are inclined to support him even if they disagree with him," Gillespie said. "But if they think they haven't seen enough in terms of jobs, or reducing inequality, that's where fair criticism might come in and support could start to decline."

Here in Kansas City, Knott isn't so sure. No matter how bad the economy is, or how many people can't find work, he believes most African Americans will stick with Obama. Before blacks reject the president, he said, "he would have to reject us first."

Bacon reported from Washington. Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.