CHICAGO -- When Michael Blake became an organizer with then-Senator Barack Obama's 2008 presidential election campaign, he was just 25 and was already a leader of the candidate's ground team in Iowa. The campaign had spent an unprecedented amount of time and money trying to clinch Iowa, and Blake was charged with corralling new Obama voters.
Blake and a staff of about 25 people reached out to specialized groups, including veterans, blacks and Latinos. Those who worked with him during the rest of the campaign -- in Iowa, South Carolina, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Michigan -- said that Blake was emblematic of the campaign's youth and vigor, and an article in Time said that Blake "may have more to do with Barack Obama's chances of becoming President than anyone besides the candidate himself."
A graduate of Northwestern University who in 2006 joined the inaugural class of the senator's "Yes We Can" political mentoring program for young people of color, Blake parlayed his role in the campaign to a job as the White House's point man for African-American outreach.
Today, with Obama's reelection dependent on black and Hispanic turnout in states that the president won narrowly in 2008, Blake is back with the Obama campaign again. He's tasked with shoring up support among minority constituent groups through an election program called Operation Vote.
The initiative, which emphasizes voter engagement and outreach and is being run from Obama for America campaign headquarters here, has been described as a "campaign within a campaign;" it's an effort that Obama's campaign team hopes will energize African Americans, Hispanics, Jews and LGBT voters.
RECONNECTING WITH THE BASE
Blake's shift from the White House to Chicago comes at a time when discontent and disappointment among some African-American voters has become pronounced. Despite such hurdles, Obama's position within the African-American community remains strong, with most black voters remaining passionate about and devoted to the first American president of color, according to polls and political analysts.
A survey done by the New York Times and CBS News in September showed that less than 10 percent of those surveyed said that Obama had failed to meet their expectations as president. And the most recent Gallup Poll showed the president's job approval rating among blacks was nearly 85 percent.
"I think some people are turning on him," said Andrea Thomas, 58, a secretary in New York City, of the president. "But I support the president because he stepped into this mess, he didn't create it. Things were monumentally bad going in. It's not like he started with a clean slate."
Thomas and a number of other black voters interviewed in New York City on a recent afternoon said their support for Obama has grown stronger, not weaker, over the course of his presidency. They said the repeated attacks by Republicans and other critics have been unfair. And that the president has had to deal with racists, an economy that was slipping even before he was elected, two wars and obstructionist Republicans who want him to fail. And according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, Obama is leading potential Republican opponent Mitt Romney 95 percent to 3 percent among black voters.
"I voted for him, but really, I didn't have any faith in him from the beginning," said Danny Fuller, 57, who works for a non-profit in New York City that feeds and clothes the homeless. "But I'm going to vote for him again. I think he's the only one we have a shot with. Given enough time, if they pull together, they can work things out. The Republicans want to keep things bad, though. They want it messed up so they can say he failed."
While there seems to be little reason to believe African Americans are abandoning the president en masse, the administration plans to use Operation Vote as a platform to reclaim the narrative of Obama's presidency and reintroduce it to the black community.
Through Operation Vote, the campaign has already begun to grow its staff in swing states like North Carolina, Florida and Virginia, all of which have large black populations. (In 2008 Obama won North Carolina by fewer than 14,000 votes.)
Even so, many critics in the African-American community say the president hasn't done enough to address the dire economic fortunes of blacks, who suffer from double-digit unemployment rates and staggering losses of wealth. Critics on the left have also grown impatient with what they see as the president's ceding too much ground to Republicans who have vowed to undermine his administration and any liberal agenda.
STATING THE CASE
While Democratic officials and strategists acknowledge that the White House has done a poor job of promoting and articulating what they describe as a host of substantive achievements for African Americans, they scoff at the notion that the president might lose his black base or that the administration hasn't made strides in easing the burdens of the country's most vulnerable.
They discount the ballyhoo of black critics like Princeton professor and activist Cornel West, media personality Tavis Smiley and Rep. Maxine Waters, all of whom have criticized the president for what they have called his inattention to the black unemployment crisis. In some cases it appears that black voters have now put the heat on Congressional Black Caucus members, who they see as having kicked the president when he was down.
"If the question becomes, 'What have [we] done?' we can talk that for days," says Blake. "No one can say that we haven't done things for the African-American community that haven't had substantive impact."
Blake points to increases in funding to historically black colleges and universities. He also said that the $3.6 billion that has gone to about 1,100 black businesses through the Minority Business Development Agency -- along with mortgage forbearance programs and the passage of the president's health care bill -- would all disproportionately benefit minorities and the poor.
Any shortcomings of the administration, stymied as it is by a bad economy and hostile opposition from Republicans and the Tea Party die-hards, have not been in crafting policy, say Obama loyalists, but in crafting effective messages.
"The problem from the administration's standpoint is that they have struggled for a long time to get a message out that communicated how important jobs and the economy were for this president," says Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist and political commentator.
Simmons notes that the president's stimulus bill helped keep state and local governments from laying off workers (21 percent of working blacks are employed by state and local governments). He also points out that billions of federal dollars have gone to Race To The Top, a program that aided public schools in some of the poorest communities in the country. Yet, Simmons says, the administration "simply didn't have a message."
"Did he hang a black policy sign around that agenda? No, but if you take a look at what he was doing, a lot of African Americans have benefited," Simmons said. Simmons speculated that, had the president promoted the benefits of his policy more vocally to blacks, critics would likely have tried to spin his advocacy for African-American issues to make a bigger political issue out of it. "In guarding against that, have they sometimes been too cautious? Yes, but some caution is certainly advisable," Simmons said.
While Democratic insiders close to the administration agree that the administration has stumbled in its messaging efforts, Blake said it's not form a lack of effort.
"Now we're explaining the benefits of [the policies] and explaining why we have more to do," he said.
The president himself admitted that his administration had become so focused on governing and trying to fix all that was going wrong on various fronts that it had missed opportunities to tell the American people what in their estimation had gone right.
"I think that, over the course of two years, we were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that we stopped paying attention to the fact that leadership isn't just legislation. That it's a matter of persuading people, and giving them confidence and bringing them together, and setting a tone," President Obama told Steve Kroft on "60 Minutes" in an interview shortly after the mid-term election in 2010. "Making an argument that people can understand," Obama continued, "I think that we haven't always been successful at that. And I take personal responsibility for that. And it's something that I've got to examine carefully ... as I go forward."
Democratic operatives say few people fully understood why they had a few extra dollars in their paychecks after the president's stimulus bill or tax cut extensions. Nor were they fully cognizant about a health care policy overhaul that would allow grown children to stay on their parents insurance longer than in the past.
Mark C. Alexander served as the policy director for Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. He says the narrative of what the president has been able to get done in a "toxic" and "dysfunctional" political environment will be a hard sell.
"Part of that narrative is that the opposition has made it their priority to make sure he is not reelected," Alexander says. "To me, that's a big problem for the president, because if the opposition's goal was to make sure there was no health care bill, that's a fight we can fight."
Alexander said the environment in Washington has become "caustic" and has given cover to "a lot of the people that are motivated by race."
"When someone comes out to fight because they are racist," he said, "that's a harder fight."
Cornel Belcher, a Democratic pollster, said the hue and cry from black Democrats such as Rep. Maxine Waters, who criticized the president for not being active enough in mending black unemployment, was not indicative of the entire black electorate. Instead, he says, it's simply emblematic of rhetoric deployed by politicians standing up for their constituents.
"Are there frustrations and disappointments in general? Absolutely," Belcher says. "But what group of Americans are not frustrated right now?"
Belcher pointed out that 11 percent of the electorate in 2008 was comprised of new voters, many of them black or Hispanic, and those first-time voters might be feeling a bit jaded about the process now because of the overwhelming excitement they felt for Obama at the beginning of his term and his promise of change, and the let down of what some see as business as usual in Washington.
"They are Obama voters, not Democratic voters," Belcher said.
Blake said Operation Vote will give the campaign an opportunity to meet many of those voters where they are, to strengthen coalitions and tell voters why Obama should be reelected.
He said he has been spending time with state campaign staffs to think of outreach and engagement in new ways, beyond the obvious forums, such as the black church, the barbershops and beauty salons. Part of the approach is tailoring specific messages and leveraging resources specific to various communities, he said, and figuring out how folks on the ground are living day to day and finding ways to speak to their needs.
He said the difficulty in showing people how the president's policy has benefited them amounts to simplifying the descriptions of very complicated policies.
'MAKE IT PERSONAL'
On a recent afternoon, Blake walked through Obama campaign headquarters. The place was teeming with campaign workers, many from the state campaign operations in town for an all-staff meeting. The scene resembled the aftermath of a color war at summer sleep-away camp, as dozens of 20- and 30-somethings scrambled about, chatting on their phones or to each other or poring over computer screens.
Blake, tall and slender, at once brooding but easy going, settled into a desk in the corner, an island amid the controlled chaos of the place. He has come a long way, and not a step in his journey is taken for granted.
He was born with a heart murmur and to a mother who doctor's said was too sick to give birth. He has been in four car accidents, including one that nearly sent him off the edge of a cliff. Years ago a neighbor was shot and killed just doors from his family's apartment in the Bronx. He watched the getaway car tear down the street and prayed nobody saw him peering through the window -- the Bronx can be a dangerous place for witnesses.
"There's no real reason other than the Lord's favor that I'm still here," Blake said, between bites of a chicken sandwich and a flurry of activity on his Blackberry. "My family has seen a lot," he said. His mom was once homeless in Jamaica. His father worked for 29 years cleaning emergency rooms. His oldest brother is in the Army, but he has two brothers who have been locked up.
Blake said the seeds of his social engagement and activism were sown in him early. His parents named him Michael Alexander, after Michael Manley, perhaps the most famous Jamaican prime minister, and Alexander Bustamante, a popular Jamaican labor leader.
At 13 he became a lay speaker in his United Methodist Church. By 14 he said he was elected youth president of the church. Later in his teens, Blake joined the Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Coalition to advocate for a local armory building to be turned into a neighborhood school. The protests and political maneuvering by the coalition and the give-and-take with the city motivated him further, he said.
He paused for a long moment, gazing down into his Blackberry.
"It's like, all of these different things, I was realizing more and more that politics and policy is a way to make things move," he said.
In college Blake tried his hand at running for elected office in an unsuccessful bid for student body president. The loss taught him a lot about politics and some very important life lessons: politics is not just about having the right policies, but also about building strong relationships, he said. After the loss he vowed that he would never allow himself to lose something again because of relationships.
Operation Vote, he said, will be no different. It's about going to communities and meeting people face to face, talking with people where they live and eat, where many of them are struggling or overcoming, and talking with them about how the president has done all that he can for them, and that without their vote, the job will be incomplete.
"It goes to a more direct way of telling the story," he said. "When I talk about health care, I don't make it in some grandiose sense. I was born with a heart murmur; my mother's a cancer survivor," Blake said. "I think it's important to make it personal ... People need to understand how it impacts them directly."
He continued, "The main thing now is to be flexible and be understanding of your communities and provide a program that will fit. The fundamental goal is we have a story to tell and we need to keep telling it."