Four years after Barack Obama surfed into office on a wave of hope for change, Harlem still gives the man in the White House its support. But although many believe the president has made the best of a bad hand, Harlemites in 2012 are less, as Obama used to say, fired up. Some feel let down, even duped, but whatever the local emotions, Obama can probably count on the Harlem vote.
“We shouldn’t compare our campaign to 2008,” Whye warned. In 2008, Harlem brimmed with the excitement of electing the country’s first black president. Now, he said, excitement has hardened into pride: people want to hold onto what they won four years ago.
“That doesn’t mean people don’t have a fierce loyalty to Obama,” Whye said.
Obama campaigners across northern Manhattan have worked to ready people to vote. The greatest headache is registering voters, Harlem4Obama found.
“If this will be a tough fight, which it seems like now, people are going to turn out big,” Whye said, implying that turnout will be higher if Obama supporters don’t think the president has the election in the bag. Without that sense of urgency, he fears, some will stay home on November 6.
A drop in voter participation is common among new voters, said Basil Smikle, a political strategist well versed in Harlem politics, but uptown, apathy adds to the low turnout.
“In 2008, people wanted to make history. That patina has worn off,” Smikle said. “A lot of voters will say, ‘I’ve done what I was supposed to do. I’ve done my job.’ Even if many would like to see him get a second chance, they might not take that extra step and vote for him.”
While still supportive, many Harlemites interviewed by The Uptowner gave Obama lukewarm grades.
That he hasn’t been able to keep every campaign promise doesn’t come as a surprise, said Paul Christie, vice president of All Things Traffic, a job placement agency. Change happens over time, he said, “so in three years has he brought that drastic change? No, but he has changed the face of the political scene, the awareness of youth and of people in groups who wanted change.”
But not everyone can believe in the change he once promised. “I swallowed the Kool-Aid just like everyone else,” said activist Joseph “Jazz” Hayden, founder of the news website All Things Harlem. When it comes to the poor and working class, “I see nothing coming from him, from his administration or his opponent’s administration. I see nothing coming from this system as it presently exists for those at the base of the pyramid,” Hayden said, calling for special attention to an overextended army, veteran affairs and prisons.
“America has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and the majority of them are African-American and other poor people of color,” Hayden said.
Those who take strong issue with the president all mentioned the difference between his campaign rhetoric and the reality of his first-term accomplishments.
“He provided the voice of hope and change,” said Douglas Muzzio, a voting behavior expert at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College. “Now after four years of Obama, with the obstruction of Congress, et cetera, there’s much less change, visible change, and less hope in the political system,” Muzzio said. “And also less hope in Obama himself.”
“A lot of voters, when asked that threshold question if they think they are better off now than four years ago, will say no,” Smikle conceded, but added that only a small minority of people uptown feel vehement disappointment.
So small, in fact, that Harlem4Obama doesn’t even bother ringing local doorbells to get out the vote. “Why would we do that?” asked Whye, rhetorically.
In Harlem’s black churches, Obama may still enjoy sturdy backing. The Rev. Berto Gandara at the Church of the Intercession on West 155th Street stressed that he doesn’t endorse candidates from the pulpit, but said he hadn’t noticed a drop in enthusiasm since 2008.
“The people are very happy with Obama, and I think they have no qualms about voting for him again,” he said. “I don’t see any disappointment or lack of interest from the people in the pews.”
Other church leaders had no hesitation about endorsing Obama. On Sunday, ahead of the second presidential debate that pundits call critical to his reelection, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III of the Abyssinian Baptist Church spoke of the upcoming clash with Republican candidate Mitt Romney: “I think we all hope that the president will wipe the floor with him,” he said to a round of howls and applause.
Written by Sune Engel Rasmussen and Charles Eichacker, with Isobel Markham and Elizabeth Stuart contributing reporting.