As he prepares to give the State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama has reason to be cautiously optimistic about the support he will get from his base for his re-election bid. However, to cement their support, he will need to focus on the issues that are most important to them in the 2012 campaign season: job creation and unemployment.
This is the takeaway from an online survey of 437 people conducted by The Root Jan. 19-20, consisting of 325 black and 112 white respondents. Of those choosing to participate in The Root's annual survey of views on President Obama and policy concerns, 77 percent of blacks identified as Democrat, 20 percent as independent and 1 percent as Republican.
Most of the whites participating identified as Democrats (67 percent), while 22 percent identified as independents and 6 percent as Republicans. By comparison, nationally 86 percent of blacks and 39 percent of whites identify as Democrat, while 8 percent of blacks and 52 percent of whites identify as Republican, according to the Pew Center for People & the Press.
Making the Grade but Sometimes Missing the Mark
The president received high marks from respondents for his performance on health insurance reform, national security and foreign policy, reflecting high-profile achievements of his tenure, such as the Affordable Care Act and the assassination of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Forty-two percent gave Obama an A grade on his leadership abilities, with overwhelming majorities of both black (98 percent) and white (92 percent) respondents indicating that the president was either "somewhat" or "very" likely to win re-election in November.
However, job creation was the most important issue among those surveyed, one for which only 15 percent of respondents gave him an A, while 39 percent gave him a B and 32 percent handed out a C. But Congress fared much worse, earning an F on the issue from 63 percent of respondents.
In addition, two-thirds (67 percent) of both black and white voters held Congress more responsible than the president for the legislative gridlock in Washington. Blacks were most vocal in pointing the blame at Congress — and Republican lawmakers specifically — for making the president's job harder.
"The president has put forth great ideas, but has been blocked by a Congress whose main purpose is to see the president fail, no matter what," one black survey participant wrote in an open-ended response.
What Matters Most to Voters
The most important issues to black respondents "leading up to the 2012 presidential election" were creating jobs/reducing unemployment (81 percent chose this option), followed in descending order by reducing poverty, education, health insurance reform and income inequality. For whites the most important concerns were creating jobs/reducing unemployment (65 percent chose this), followed in descending order by health insurance reform, income inequality and education.
Only on health care reform did the president's perceived strengths line up with respondents' concerns. Obama received the most A grades from respondents on national security (57 percent), foreign policy (57 percent) and health care reform (50 percent). Yet creating jobs/reducing unemployment was deemed among their top concerns by 81 percent of blacks and 65 percent of whites who took part in the survey.
Blacks gave Obama mostly B's (38 percent) and C's (34 percent) for that topic. Whites handed out mostly B's and C's on this issue as well, but almost a quarter gave the president D's and F's (12 percentage points each). By comparison, despite black unemployment being almost twice the national average, only 3 percent of blacks surveyed in The Root poll flunked the president on this issue, with 8 percent handing Obama a D.
African Americans who indicated that they were unemployed or looking for additional employment were strikingly optimistic that they would find a job within the next six months (82 percent). This was in stark contrast to their job-seeking white counterparts, among whom almost half (47 percent) were "not at all optimistic" that they would find jobs in six months.
Blacks blamed Congress more for the nation's failure to create jobs, with 63 percent giving the legislative branch an F. Whites also blamed Congress, with 68 percent handing an F to Congress on this issue.
"The president gets low ratings," observed Fredrick C. Harris, a political science professor and director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, "but Congress gets even lower ratings. Voters mostly see them as blocking his agenda when it comes to the economy."
Black participants' frustration was more evident when considering the president's powers of persuasion, or lack thereof, with Congress. A plurality of blacks (42 percent) gave Obama a C on getting Congress to approve his policies. When asked what they would have the president do differently in the months leading up the election, many indicated that Obama needed to get tough with a recalcitrant Congress and be less compromising.
"Stop giving in to Congress and do what needs to be done," wrote one black respondent.
"No compromise," wrote another black respondent. "If it worked for the Republicans, it will work for him. Many in his base have lost faith in his ability to move the progressive agenda forward."
And keeping that base energized may prove to be the challenge for the president heading into the fall. Despite evidence of solid support for Obama, poll data also demonstrated a softening of that support.
On a favorability scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being highest, 94 percent of blacks said they rated Obama a 4 or 5 when he first took office three years ago. That number dropped 15 points to 79 percent today. Among whites overall, Obama's favorability rating dropped 20 points for the same period.
Despite the current turmoil in the GOP presidential-nomination contest, if Mitt Romney stays viable until the GOP nomination, he could prove challenging for Obama, especially among white independents who backed the president in 2008.
"Mitt Romney has less far to travel to capture that medium than a person like Gingrich," Harris said. "He's seen as pro-business. He's an entrepreneur. He's also been a governor, a Republican, who engineered a public health care program in his state. Those people in the middle concerned about inequality, health care, would not hold their noses if they decided to vote for Romney."
Obama has work to do to keep the African-American wing of his base stoked as well.
"The first time around, you have massive turnout, records broken for a symbolic first," Harris said. "But the second time around, you have some blacks who feel officials haven't done enough. That's when you can get a softening of turnout, not expressed in the polls, but at the voting booth itself."
Dara Sharif, a New York-based editor and writer, conducted the 2012 Rating Obama survey on The Root. Follow her on Twitter.