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Obama: Don't just drive by, take a minute to energize us

Jonathan Hicks | 5/25/2011, 9:24 a.m.

When President Obama came to Harlem for a fundraising event recently, there was more than a little consternation amongst members of the community who felt they were not even an afterthought in the president's agenda. Many Harlemites felt that the president's decision to whisk in and out of a $30,000-a-plate event without interacting with them meant that they were simply not a priority to the man whose presidency they had championed.

The truth is that presidents cannot engage the masses in every community where they make appearances. The demands and rigors of the office, of the brutal time constraints and even of 21st century security issues makes that impossible. Let's face it, an outdoor rally on 125th Street in 2011 has security concerns that were unfathomable 50 years ago.

Yet it's hard not to sense a need on the part of this president to do more to interact with and energize his political base as he moves toward his reelection campaign. Why is that important? After all, the Republican field looks anemic at this point.

In a list of decidedly low-voltage candidates, the Republicans' most electrifying figure is a tedious congresswoman from Minnesota whose inaccurate recitations on slavery in the age of the Founding Fathers would result in a failing grade for any sixth grader. And to add to it, the president is the incumbent, with all the trappings of the most powerful office in the world. Before spring has even set in, he has already launched his glitzy reelection campaign, with a goal of raising a landmark $1 billion. No Republican has yet announced his or her candidacy.

But Barack Obama's presidency--and his reelection--cannot be viewed through the prism of convention, political theory or political history. And whether the president chooses to acknowledge it--or whether we do--race is the undeniable elephant in the political room. There is so much unchartered territory regarding the political landscape facing American's first Black president that it would behoove him to cling to one of the few undeniable tenets of politics: Energize your base!

There is no voting group, no demographic cluster that will support Obama as enthusiastically as African-American voters. It is essential for the president that this bedrock of his support feels emotionally invested in his reelection. As a case in point, David N. Dinkins, New York City's first and only African-American mayor, received more than 90 percent of the Black vote in the 1989 mayoral election. He won a nearly identical percentage of the Black vote in his unsuccessful reelection campaign four years later. However, the turnout was lower. Had he received a higher percentage of the Black and Latino vote, it could well have made the difference in a race that the mayor lost by 2 percentage points in the general election.

Obama might well learn from this sliver of New York City history. Certainly, he has one thing going for him as 2012 looms: the 2010 census figures make clear that that the Black and Latino portion of the nation's population increased from the previous decade in every state, higher even than some demographers had predicted. As Ronald Brownstein pointed out in an excellent piece in the National Journal, if the president and his Democratic leaders can translate that into the registration of new, energized voters, it would enhance their prospects in some of the most competitive states in 2012.

But energizing the president's African-American base will not be easy. With Black unemployment still in alarming, vicious numbers, with chronically underperforming schools in the nation's urban centers and with American's military involvement now reaching into northern Africa, the base desperately needs to be convinced that there is a reason for them to become reenergized.

It is laudable that Obama decided to address a National Action Network gathering in New York, but if the president, on his way to future swanky fundraising events in other Black and Latino centers, decides to step further into those communities to remind Black and Brown America that he yet feels their pain and is steadfastly committed to relieving it, it would be a mighty good thing for him--and for us.