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Netroots Panel On Black Voter Turnout Sparks Debate

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Joblessness in the black community combined with the oft-heard sentiment that the president has "dissed" his most loyal base has been the subject of heated public discussion, most notably the Cornel West/Al Sharpton debate on MSNBC back in April. But rather than focus on this issue, the Doing It Again panel at last week's Netroots Nation conference centered on grassroots strategies for re-engaging blacks and other first-time voters for the 2012 presidential election.

The panel was moderated by LegalSpeaks blogger Debbie Hines and included Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD), Politic365.com Editor Kristal High, technology and politics blogger Jeneba Ghatt and progressive organizer Scott Roberts. As a panelist, I was happy that we focused on solutions for ensuring often marginalized groups remain part of the political process. However, with Obama-bashing at fever pitch in certain circles, some reactions to the panel demonstrate that disappointment in the president can overshadow meaningful attempts to reach out to voters.

Shortly after the discussion a commenter* at the liberal Fire Dog Lake website posted about the perceived emphasis of panelists on "educat[ing] people about accomplishments" rather than railing against the president for his "complete failures at pursuing the agenda of their base". Titled NN11 Young Voter Turnout Session - How Do You Convince Someone They're Better Off Despite Their Lying Eyes?, the author ("one_outer") and many of the nearly 130 comments sparked by the post seem to support the idea that not voting in 2012 or voting for a third party candidate are somehow better options than helping voters make an informed decision at the ballot box.

Then, in response to a panelist's observation that people should be made aware of the interconnection of local, state and federal politics, the author makes an odd assertion (for a liberal) in stating that "Even the most ignorant Southern redneck knows that you can't count on the federal government for anything, so why would anyone want to conflate state and local politics, where some progress is possible, with federal politics."

Really? Must we be reminded of state attorneys' general attempts to block implementation of health reform? A civic lesson may in fact be in order. More concerning however, is that the author essentially exerts a pro-state's rights argument in a discussion of black voter enfranchisement. This is especially worrisome as more states move to pass voter identification laws and limit the widely popular early voting options that have proven effective in turning out urban and black voters. Without federal involvement and protections, minorities would have little recourse against these blatant attempts to limit their political participation.

Over at Balloon Juice, a more favorable post on the panel also ignited a vibrant debate that focused more on the challenges facing young people, the president's record, the nuts and bolts of campaigning, and the relevance of such discussions to activists.

Ruemara, a Ballon Juice commentator who described herself as a "disenfranchised, underemployed, perennially broke, nearly homeless, AA [African American] female," summed up the ongoing debates and concerns among black voters with this observation:

"Happily, within our community, we're oddly happy with the President, pissed at Republicans, pissed at Democrats, considering a 3rd party but only as a fantasy football thing and concerned about voting rights."

And so the question remains, will disenchanted blacks turnout to support Obama in 2012?

Looking at polling data, the answer is likely yes. During the panel, I touched on some of the trends that provide the basis for this assessment. Despite the depressing joblessness rate and disappointment (expressed by some) in the Obama administration's lack of targeted policy solutions to address their concerns, blacks overwhelming approve of the president's job performance. Additionally, blacks, more so than whites, believe that a brighter future is ahead both for themselves and future generations. For many, the president is the embodiment of those hopes and dreams. This was true in 2008 and will likely be the same in 2012.

This does not discount the almost certain reality that getting disaffected voters back to the polls will be a challenge. The "enthusiasm gap" may very well cause an erosion of support among the president's key constituencies. This will also likely play out with fewer small dollar donations.

But just in case anyone wants to inaccurately suggest that blacks remain loyal to President Obama because of his skin color, polling data suggest progressives and liberals on a whole still strongly support the president. Media reports on the Netroots conference focused on the tension between progressives and the White House, but as these Gallup numbers show, support among the president's liberal base remains at about 90%, which is virtually unchanged since his inauguration. This is further evidenced by the straw poll of the largely white Netroots attendees that demonstrates while some are upset that the president "has not gone far enough" in advancing a liberal agenda, the president continues to enjoy wide support among many of his most vocal critics.

* Editor's Note: Fire Dog Lake is an open forum and the post by one_outer was not written by a Fire Dog Lake employee.

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