WASHINGTON - An Obama will again address the NAACP’s annual convention, which starts July 9 in Kansas City, Mo. It just won’t be President Obama. First Lady Michelle Obama will give a talk— not a keynote address, more of an informal workshop-type discussion on her signature issue, the campaign against childhood obesity. The speech is so under-the-radar that she’s not even listed in the confab’s 10-page schedule of panels and events.
The president’s no-show at the convention has provoked two lines of speculation. According to the first, he’s adhering to his cautious goal of doing and saying nothing that belies his race-neutral stance as president of all of the American people. But an appearance or a message to the convention wouldn’t conflict with this posture. Barack Obama appeared at last year’s 100th anniversary gathering without stirring up even a tiny tempest. In fact, since the NAACP has been holding a convention, every president—including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—has either made an appearance or delivered a message via video. With the exception of George W. Bush, none of them ever raised an eyebrow—and Bush only did so because he boycotted the convention his first six years in the White House.
The second theory is that Obama fears that an appearance before a racial advocacy group like the NAACP would give more ammunition to Obama loathers, Tea Party activists, and the Palin-Limbaugh wing of the GOP. This reasoning makes even less sense. A no-show won’t stop conservatives’ constant pounding of the president and his agenda. Obama is certainly smart enough to know that.
Obama hasn’t given an official reason for skipping the convention. But it’s easy to come up with plenty of good ones. His plate groans issues that demand his immediate attention: Afghanistan funding and logistical problems, finishing touches on financial reform, the BP spill, the looming fight over energy reform, stalled bills to extend aid to the unemployed, not to mention the never-ending requests to promote Democratic candidates in a critical election year.
But plausible as these excuses seem, there are also some nagging inconsistencies, starting with the fact that Obama will be in Kansas City the day before the convention starts to attend a fundraiser for Democratic Senate hopeful Robin Carnahan. Why can’t he tweak his schedule? Barring that, why can’t Obama make a video message? An appearance or message is the politically expedient, the practical and, quite simply, the right thing to do.
The black vote has been the Democrats' trump card in every election for the past half-century, win or lose. If black voters had not turned the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries into a virtual holy crusade for Obama, and if Obama had not stoked the black vote openly in the South Carolina primary and subtly thereafter, he might still be the junior senator from Illinois. Through its voter education and get-out-the- vote efforts, the NAACP played a colossal role in galvanizing the black electorate, nearly all of whom voted for Obama.
Now, with the 2010 midterm elections fast approaching, pundits and even Democratic consultants are near unanimous that the party will suffer significant losses in Congress this fall. The only real question is how bad the political hemorrhaging will be. A solid and united GOP, and droves of independents who are disillusioned, disgusted and even hostile toward Obama, should make the black vote loom even bigger in Obama's calculus. He needs an outpouring of black support similar to November 2008 to save as many Democratic seats as possible and serve as a partial shield against the withering assaults from the right against him and his agenda.
For the past half century, the NAACP has fought tough battles in the courts and on the streets for voting rights, affirmative action, school integration and an end to housing and job discrimination. The group still accurately captures the mood of fear and hostility that the majority of blacks feel toward Republicans and chronic Obama bashers. Whether or not Obama addresses the convention, the NAACP will still exhort, implore, and cajole blacks to vote, which again means votes for Democrats. The aim is to ensure maximum support for Obama’s agenda and to do damage control against GOP attacks.
Obama needs the NAACP and the NAACP needs Obama. He’s still their best hope to hold the line against the GOP assault on education, health care and job spending and programs, as well as the fight for immigration reform and critical Supreme Court appointments. These are bread-and-butter issues and concerns for Obama and the NAACP. President Obama should say yes to the NAACP convention.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is “How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge” (Middle Passage Press).
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