Mitt Romney faced the most sustained booing of his presidential campaign – more than 15 seconds – when he told the NAACP that would ‘eliminate…Obamacare’.
The presumptive Republican nominee knew he would be facing a potentially hostile crowd at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People conference in Houston – 95 per cent of blacks voted for President Barack Obama four years ago.
But he seemed briefly stunned by the booing and catcalling from the audience and departed from his prepared remarks to argue that Obama’s healthcare reform would cause businesses to shed jobs.
Romney’s reception was initially polite, even warm at times. But that changed when he said: ‘I’m going to eliminate every non-essential expensive programme I can find, that includes Obamacare.’
Abandoning his script, he quelled the boos by saying: ‘You know, there was a survey of the Chamber of Commerce, they carried out a survey of their members, about 1500 were surveyed.
‘And they asked them what effect that Obamacare would have on their plans and three-quarters of them said it would make them less likely to hire people.
‘So I say again if our priority is jobs and that’s my priority that’s something I’d change and I will replace with something that provides people something they need in healthcare, which is lower cost, good quality , a capacity to deal with people who have pre-existing conditions and I’ll put that in place.’
Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist, told CNN that the crowd was ‘right to boo’ because ‘Obamacare’ was ‘derogatory terminology used by an intolerant group of Americans’.
Back in March, however, the Obama campaign fully embraced the term Obamacare, formerly mainly the preserve of conservative critics of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, sent out an email saying: ‘I like Obamacare. I’m proud of it — and you should be, too. Here’s why: Because it works. So if you’re with me, say it: “I like Obamacare.”’
Romney was also booed when he promised to ‘open up energy, expand trade, cut the growth of government, focus on better educating tomorrow’s workers today and restore economic freedom’ and added that Obama would not do this.
‘And I know the President will say he’s going to do those things, but he has not, he will not, he cannot, and his last four years in the White House prove it definitively.’
Romney, who was branded in a liberal video previewing the NAACP speech in Houston as ‘so white’ that he makes ‘Wonder Bread look like pumpernickel’, pushed his message that black unemployment has risen to 14.4 per cent under Obama, way above the 8.2 per cent national rate.
The former Massachusetts governor also highlighted school choice, favored by many blacks and which he has described as the ‘civil rights issue of our era’.
By comparison, former President George W. Bush highlighted education in his 2000 speech to the NAACP and won 11 per cent of the black vote.
Obama currently has an 87 per cent approval rating among blacks but if Romney can improve his standing among blacks it could prove crucial in swing states like North Carolina, where Obama eked out a narrow win in 2008, and Virginia.
Some leading black figures have grown disillusioned with Obama. Cornel West, the Harvard professor and a key 2008 supporter, recently described him as the ‘black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats’.
A number of more centrist Democrats have also been critical. Artur (CORR) Davis, a former Alabama congressman and a prominent ally in 2008, has left the Democratic party, is supporting Romney and says that ‘candidate Obama has been a very different person than President Obama’.
Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark and former congressman Harold Ford of Tennessee all indicated they were uncomfortable with Obama’s attacks on private equity and Romney’s record at Bain Capital.
Former president Bill Clinton, famously described as the ‘first black president’ by the writer Toni Morrison, angered the Obama campaign by saying that Romney had a ‘sterling’ business record and his work at Bain had been ‘good work’.
This year, Obama is not going to the NAACP conference and is instead sending Vice President Joe Biden – a move that could lead to accusations he is taking black voters for granted.
In 2008, Obama overcame doubts that his mixed parentage and lack of slave ancestors meant that he would not be embraced fully by blacks. But some people still highlight his white mother, suggesting that he is not really black.
His half-brother George Obama’s says in a new documentary that the President is ‘some half white guy’ while actor Morgan Freeman told NPR this week that people ‘forget that Barack had a mama, and she was white’.
He added: ‘America’s first black president hasn’t arisen yet. He is not America’s first black president – he’s America’s first mixed-race president.’
Romney also highlighted his family history. His father George spoke out against segregation in the 1960s and while governor of Michigan toured urban areas as race riots hit Detroit. As head of the Housing and Urban Development Department, he pushed for housing reforms to help blacks.
He said: ‘For every one of us a particular person comes to mind, someone who set a standard of conduct and made us better by their example. For me, that man is my father, George Romney.
‘It wasn’t just that my Dad helped write the civil rights provision for the Michigan Constitution, though he did. It wasn’t just that he helped create Michigan’s first civil rights commission, or that as governor he marched for civil rights in Detroit – though he did those things, too.
‘More than these public acts, it was the kind of man he was, and the way he dealt with every person, black or white. He was a man of the fairest instincts, and a man of faith who knew that every person was a child of God.’
But this was not enough for most of the NAACP members at the conference.
Attorney general Eric Holder, who is black, received a rousing reception this week when he told the conference that Republicans wanted to disenfranchise them by introducing tough new voter ID laws in a number of states.
Holder said that that 25 per cent of eligible black voters lack a photo ID but only eight per cent of whites do.
‘In our efforts to protect voting rights and to prevent voting fraud, we will be vigilant and strong,” he said. ‘But let me be clear: we will not allow political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens of their most precious right.’