Consider this the sounding of the alarm.
A narrative is beginning to develop regarding the 2012 presidential election that, while true, interesting, and worthy of discussion, seems to miss the more important point. It goes something like this: With astronomically high unemployment rates and a general lack of attention, a limited amount of grumbling has begun to develop in some segments of the African American community regarding President Barack Obama and his policies. The grumbling, as the narrative goes, will not impact African American support for President Obama's reelection because Blacks want to protect the president. But something is missing in this narrative and is a more important point that Mr. Obama's campaign would do well to include in its electoral calculus. President Obama could retain the same proportion of the African American vote, but of a smaller Black electoral pie. If that happens then President Obama could become David Dinkins -- a groundbreaking electoral winner who loses reelection, at least in part, because Black apathy keeps a significant portion of his base at home.
David Dinkins had a long and distinguished political career when, in 1989, he beat incumbent mayor Ed Koch in the Democratic primary and Republican-nominee Rudolph Giuliani in the general election to become the first African American mayor of New York. There was a huge historical outpouring of support to get Dinkins elected mayor and his victory made international headlines. Even with record African American turnout, it was still a tight race in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. As Jonathan P. Hicks noted in a 1993 New York Times article, a shift of 22,000 voters in the total of 1.8 million voters would have swung the election toward Giuliani. Dinkins lost a rematch with Giuliani four years later, in part because Black turnout receded.
It is understandable why some Black voters are concerned. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the June 2011 Black unemployment rate stood at 16.2 percent (for context, the June 2001 Black unemployment rate was 8.3 percent). This number does not reveal the true picture as it excludes people who work part time because they can't find full time work or people who have given up and are no longer looking for work, so the effective unemployment/underemployment rate is likely higher. Add to this a plunging of Black wealth in the economic crisis and Republican efforts to suppress the Black vote and it won't be any wonder if some voters conclude that there is no point in showing up on election day. To the extent that the president has anything to say about African Americans, it's about the need for Black fathers to "step up" and show "personal responsibility." While that is an important message, it is one that anyone can give. The president needs to use his bully pulpit to bear witness to Black suffering and publicly show that he cares. When a president speaks on an issue, it immediately becomes important. Conversely, an issue can be seen as inconsequential if he publicly ignores it. Ignoring the unique issues in Black America could leave some, and it does not have to be a lot, to ignore him on election day.
Dinkins' reelection campaign was hurt by, among other factors, a feeling that developed in some Black neighborhoods that he was more focused on other parts of his electorate. As one African American political consultant put it in 1993, "When Black people see the mayor traveling to Israel during the Gulf War, but not visiting their community in New York City, it fuels the perception that he cares more about other communities in the city." Substitute mayor with president, Israel with Wall Street, and New York City with America, and the similarities between Dinkins in 1993 and Obama in 2011 could become more than coincidental.
The president could lose his reelection bid if enough Black voters stay home because they either do not believe the Republican nominee can win or they just do not feel the same urgency to show up on election day. Not voting for your candidate is the same as voting for his or her opponent, so it could be African American voters who keep the President from a second term. In 2008, Mr. Obama won Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida by small margins on the strength of Black votes. If enough Black voters in those states stay home, then the Republican nominee will take the oath of office in January of 2013. While there are other segments of Mr. Obama's base that are lukewarm at the moment, there is no way he can win with a smaller universe of Black voters.
David Dinkins' name is not on the tips of very many tongues these days, particularly among people who do not live in New York. Obama campaign officials would be fools if they did not learn a thing or two about him and how he lost his reelection bid nearly 20 years ago.
Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com.