Newt Gingrich’s campaign for the GOP presidential nomination is near death in the polls, staffing and fundraising. But even as he appears on his way out the door the former Speaker is standing tall. He’s the first Republican to put President Obama on the defensive over the White House’s failure to do more to help black Americans.
These days Republicans generally ignore black voters. So it comes as no surprise that President Obama captured nearly 97 percent of the black vote in 2008.
But Gingrich recently opened the door to a different future in which Republicans take their message to black voters when he said: "No administration in modern times has failed younger blacks more than the Obama administration."
That was no one liner. Gingrich knew he was opening himself up to the difficult world of black politics and the GOP. A world with few black Republicans and even fewer black Tea Party members.
But Gingrich made a very specific case that the Obama administration is guilty of neglect when it comes to young black Americans. "Think of the social catastrophe of 41% of a community not being able to find a job,” he said bluntly.
And then he took responsibility as a Republican for his party’s failure to reach out to black America and say the GOP represents a political alternative to Obama.
“But we have to have the courage to walk into that neighborhood, to talk to that preacher, to visit that small business, to talk to that mother,” Gingrich said. “And we have to have a convincing case that we actually know how to create jobs."
Republicans are confronting a demographic Armageddon as older, white voters -- the heart of the GOP are dying off -- while there is an inexorable rise younger voters, Hispanic, Black and Asian, who do not see the Republican Party as a welcoming political home.
On the health care bill and on immigration reform, two critical issues to all young people but especially young people of color, the firebrands of the Republican Party have played to resentments of older, white voters and demonized young people of color and immigrants as preying on tax-paying, and law-abiding Americans, who are just looking for free health care and “amnesty” after entering the country illegally.
The GOP has been so aggressive in its critique of the first president of color that it is hard for young people of color – particularly the Tea Party with its often racially insensitive signs – that it’s hard for young people of color to imagine that Republicans have their interest at heart.
But that heavy racial baggage is not stopping Gingrich from speaking his truth in the best spirit of the party of Abe Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. And there is a lot of truth to what Gingrich is saying.
While the national unemployment rate is at 9.1 percent, the black unemployment rate has risen to 16.2 percent. Amongst black teens, the unemployment rate stands at a shocking 40 percent. One out of every 4 black people in America lives below the poverty line.
"Can you imagine… if 34 percent of white women were out there looking for work and couldn't find it?" asked Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri and chairman of the Congressional Black caucus. "You would see congressional hearings and community gatherings. There would be rallies and protest marches. There is no way that this would be allowed to stand.”
President Obama campaigned on the vague but inspirational ideas of hope and change. This meant different things to each of his different constituencies. To black voters, it meant there was cause for hope that he would change their economic fortunes. Despite Obama’s efforts to improve the economy for all Americans, the reality is that life for black Americans has gotten poorer, harder and more hopeless the two and a half years since he was elected president.
This disappointment has caused debate amongst black leaders about the limits of their support for the nation’s first black president.
"This is an American crisis that demands an American response at the highest echelons of our government," said Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University professor. "And that does include the White House."
Princeton University Professor Cornel West has been the most vocal in his break with Obama, calling him “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” Professor West said candidly “I don’t think in good conscience I could tell anybody to vote for Obama.”
This stance has pitted West against other prominent black leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, the President of the National Action Network. The two men were drawn in to a shouting match on MSNBC earlier this year over the Obama record.
A Gallup poll released earlier this month found that Obama’s job approval amongst blacks had fallen to 86 percent. While this is an improvement from April when it was at 83 percent, it is still down 10 points from January of 2009 in the same poll.
The Obama political machine anticipated this growing dissatisfaction as early as March of this year. They have been conducting a strategic campaign to shore up support in the black community heading in to the 2012 election.
The President spoke at the 20th anniversary convention of Sharpton’s National Action Network and has made use of surrogates like Sharpton in the black community.
The White House Office of Public Engagement has launched a new webpage earlier this year: to show how the Obama agenda is helping black people through blogs and videos. It also featured news about black administration officials speaking at black forums.
Obama’s goal between now and the election will be to make them aware of these initiatives and that no matter how frustrated they may be, their economic fortunes are beginning to improve – and that they would be considerably worse under a Republican president.
Am I suggesting that black voters will abandon the Democrats in favor of the Republicans? Absolutely not.
But enough black voters may be frustrated and disheartened that their ears are perking up to critics of the Obama administration. And there is an opportunity there for forward looking Republicans who know that their party has no future unless it reach out to young people, minorities and immigrants as fellow Americans. The 2016 campaign is coming up and President Obama will not be on that ballot.
There is not much life left in Gingrich’s campaign for the 2012 nomination but in his role as Republican visionary he continues to be far ahead of the competition.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His forthcoming book "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) will be released on July 26.