American Voices: The African-American Vote

African-Americans were critical to Barack Obama's presidential victory. They made up a record 13 percent of the electorate, and 95 percent supported him. Most of them still believe he's doing a good job: 85 percent of black voters believe he's made progress on the economy, while only 36 percent of white voters agree; 85 percent of African-Americans think he's made headway in providing affordable healthcare, while only 40 percent of whites do. But will black voters turn out for the midterms? CBS Evening News Anchor Katie Couric spoke with African-American voters in New Jersey for the latest installment of "American Voices."

Couric: "When you saw Barack Obama at the inauguration as the first African-American president in the history of this country, tell me how you felt."

Joshua Suggs, owner of Delta's restaurant in New Jersey, said he was "very excited. Really just thinking about the change that could happen."

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"It was bittersweet," said Dr. Carol Skipper. "Sweet in the sense that the pride of an African-American to have an African-American president. Bitter in the sense that I looked at what he inherited as a president."

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"It was a very exciting time for Americans, Hasjonn Simmon said. "Yet I understood that there were some serious challenges ahead."

The biggest of those challenges is the economy. Unemployment remains higher than nine percent. Among African-Americans, it's more than 16 percent.

Simmons didn't vote for Barack Obama, he didn't think his economic policies were pro-business enough.

"We need to inspire business growth, entrepreneurship, opportunity. That's what's going to regenerate a strong economy," Simmons said. "Not, you know, developing social programs or government programs."

Couric: "Should he be held accountable in any way for the current situation?"

"The moment you take the oath of office you assume the duties as the President of the United States," Simmons said. "So you cannot not-be responsible for taking corrective action."

While the president's approval ratings has dropped overall, support among African-Americans remains strong. A whopping 90 percent still approveof the job he's doing, and wonder about those who don't.

"There's a certain element of other races that -- you know, their house could be on fire and they wouldn't want Barack Obama's administration to come and-- and put it out," Suggs said.

Couric: "Do you feel at all pressured to support the president because he is African-American?"

Kenneth Smith said he does not. "There are plenty of African-Americans that I would never vote for. This man is a very intelligent man that you would follow anywhere."

To stave off a Republican wave, he'll need black voters to follow him into the voting booth. That was his message this month at Bowie State University - the oldest black college in Maryland.

"Don't make me look bad now," President Obama said to the crowd.

Obama may not be on the ballot, but his performance and policies are on the minds of voters.

Couric: "A lot of people object to the notion of the government mandating that you have health insurance. As a physician, why do you think that's appropriate?"

"Every other industrialized country has a national health care plan," Skipper replied. "I don't think that we should be in a country where you lose your job and you have no healthcare coverage."

While Josh Suggs agrees, he worries about the financial toll health care reform may take on his restaurant.

"I know that the health care costs are rising," Suggs said. "I'm not quite sure how, but Delta's -- as a whole is going to be able to pay the increased cost as we move forward."

But, he added, "It's something that I'm willing to spend money on." Suggs hopes Obama "really comes up with something that's going to be a solution."

Even though they don't all agree on the direction he's taking the nation, they all agree it's a step forward for African-Americans.

Simmons said Obama's election "has allowed America to engage -- the issue of race. Are we finished with the discussion? Not quite."

Couric: "Do you think that the Obama presidency has improved race relations in this country?"

"I don't think that one man is going to change racism in this country," Skipper said. "It's only going to be eradicated if we, ourselves, as individuals start teaching our children to view racism in a different way."

Suggs said as a kid he used to get angry at racism. But, "as I've grown older, I just feel very sad for people that really don't understand the difference between racism and the fact that, you know, it's a global world now. And there're so many people in the mix."

"I think it absolutely has improved race relations," Smith said. "I think that young black voters or just before voting age have to realize that for Obama to become President a lot of white Americans had to vote for him."

But winning those voters this time may be a challenge for the president and his fellow Democrats. That's why they're hoping for a 2008 turnout among black voters in 2010.

More "American Voices" Reporting
American Voices: Young Voters in Boston
American Voices: Independent Voters in Philadelphia
American Voices: Unemployed Voters in Ohio