It's been a rocky week for President Obama in general, but particularly concerning his connection to African Americans. After kicking off his re-election campaign with a well-received speech at the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network conference, the same event culminated with a televised shouting match between Sharpton and Dr. Cornel West over whether the president has credibly acknowledged black hardship or whether he is, according to West, a "black mascot" for wealthy bankers.
Federal budget negotiations managed to ward off a government shutdown, but the compromise ceded steep cuts to education and health programs (although many cuts targeted programs with unspent funds, or that were covered elsewhere) and revoked Washington, D.C.'s right to use its own money to help poor women access abortion services.
And while the Department of Health and Human Services unveiled a plan to reduce racial health disparities, Gallup released a poll showing that President Obama's approval rating among African Americans is down, from above 90 percent to 85 percent.
It's against this backdrop that the White House Office of Public Engagement launched a new webpage dedicated to the administration's policies and outreach that benefit the black community. The site, whitehouse.gov/africanamericans, actually started as a Black History Month project highlighting African-American members of the Obama administration, but it's been retooled as a year-round "What We're Doing" information clearinghouse with blog posts, fact sheets, video and photo galleries.
Features include a video of Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett explaining the administration's efforts to combat domestic HIV/AIDS (and sharing a personal story about losing her sister-in-law to the disease), a document breaking down how Obama's proposed 2012 budget (pdf) promotes job training, lending and college access in black communities, and a blog detailing a recent White House roundtable discussion with 60 black gay and lesbian student leaders. Some may dismiss the site as pandering — but for a White House communications team that's notoriously wonky and long-winded, it's a way to help them make policy more personal and practical.
"We know that there's a continual need to get information out more," Michael Blake, White House director of African-American outreach, admitted to The Root. "We saw this as a perfect opportunity to gather everything into one central place, so that when someone asks, 'What is happening for the African-American community,' they don't have to go to multiple places. They can go to just one."
The low black voter turnout in November's crushing mid-term election was one big sign that their message wasn't connecting.
"A lot of people are frustrated, and they may not be aware of everything that's happening from this administration that is directly helping people," said Blake. "We're always saying that $1 billion [sent] out to black colleges over a 10-year span, for example, or the money that went to community health centers, is a huge deal."
Since the midterm election, the administration has stepped up its black outreach with an accelerated roster of events — this week they'll hit the National Minority Supplier Development Council conference, as well as community events and conversations in Atlanta with Mayor Kasim Reed and HBCU students. The new African-American-focused Web portal is another extension of the effort, which has also dispatched representatives to Detroit, San Antonio and the National Urban League conference this year.
"We are literally crisscrossing the country to continue engaging with people on the ground," said Blake, who isn't daunted by constant, sometimes angry charges that the White House isn't doing enough. "I love the challenge of my job because it forces us to not be complacent, and it forces us to be aggressive about making it a two-way conversation."