President Barack Obama is testing a much-needed replacement for Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen whose media-magnified death helped spike African-American turnout in the 2012 election.
The new campaign-trail martyr is Clayton Lockett, an African-American who kidnapped four people, including a 18 year-old woman whom he raped and then killed after she watched her grave being dug for 20 minutes.
Obama has the same motive as he did 2012 — boosting turnout of his most important bloc.
One means is the long-standing and widespread opposition among African-Americans to the death-penalty and to tough policing.
Today’s Rose Garden press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave him the opportunity.
He pulled Trayvon Martin into the presidential election by answering a question about Martin at the end of a Rose Garden ceremony in March, eight months before turnout day in November. Today’s answer came six months before turnout day.
The press conference began with a serious, and appropriate question about the main subject of Obama’s meeting with Merkel — the slow-motion Russian invasion Ukraine, which went hot today when Russian-backed forces shot down two Ukrainian helicopters.
But late in the press conference, a French reporter named Tangi Quéméner lobbed his slow-pitch question about Lockett straight towards Obama’s home plate.
“Earlier this week, an inmate died in Oklahoma in what critics have called an inhumane manner because of a seemingly botched execution… does this raise moral questions about U.S. justice and global reputation?” said Quéméner, who is a White House reporter for Agence France Presse.
For Obama, the answer is written in the survey data, which offered him an easy means to stoke the weakening polling support among African-Americans.
In 2014, as they were in 2012, African-American voters are in economic distress in the Obama economy. They’re losing out as millions of jobs are exported, automated and outsourced to new immigrants, legal and illegal. In the latest jobs report, for April 2014, the unemployment rate for African-American was set at 11.6, or more than double the white rate of 5.3 percent, not counting millions of Americans who have given up looking for work.
So an April 2014 poll in California by The Field Report pegged his support among African-Americans at 84 percent. An April 2014 poll by the Washington Post and ABC showed him winning only 61 percent support from non-whites,.
But a Pew survey from March gave him one means to boost his support. The survey shows that only 36 percent of African-Americans — and 40 percent of desirable Latino voters — support the death penalty. A clear majority are against the death penalty, which many claim is unfairly and overwhelmingly applied to African-Americans.
Sure, 63 percent of whites support the death penalty. But that majority doesn’t matter, because few white swing-voters will be influenced by Obama’s death-penalty pitch to African-Americans.
With motive and means, Obama let fly when the reporter provided the opportunity.
He could have ignored the question, offered some meaningless cliches, or or simply said it is an issue for Oklahoma voters. But he choose to swing for the fences.
“What happened in Oklahoma is deeply troubling,” Obama began.
“In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems — racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to have been innocent because of exculpatory evidence,” he said.
“So I’ll be discussing with Eric Holder and others to get me an analysis of what steps have been taken not just in this particular instance but more broadly… I think we do have to, as a society, ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions around these issues.”
Back in March 2012, Obama jumped into the Trayvon Martin controversy by inviting a shouted question just after he had nominated someone to run the World Bank.
“Mr. President, may I ask you about this current case in Florida, very controversial, allegations of lingering racism within our society… Can you comment on the Trayvon Martin case, sir?”
“I’m the head of the executive branch, and the Attorney General reports to me so I’ve got to be careful… [but] obviously, this is a tragedy,” Obama said in his scripted response.
“I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids… my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” said Obama, delivering the most emotional line of the response.
“And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he said, before dispatching Holder to Florida.
That message to African-American voters was a subtle as President George H.W. Bush’s clumsy reading of instructions on a speech card in the 1992 campaign. “Message: I care!” Bush told New Hampshire voters worried that he was oblivious to their economic pain.
Obama’s crude 2012 message helped him divert African-American voters from the lousy economic facts. He won almost 97 percent of their vote by painting the GOP candidate as an uncaring white plutocrat, and presenting himself as an much-wounded representative of African-American pride. In fact, Obama’s emotional pitch boosted black turnout above white turnout.
Obama’s new death-penalty tactic may not become a large part of his 2014 campaign, partly because Lockett is not not another Florida teenager, let alone a Mother Teresa.
But Lockett has a few pluses. The gruesome details of his death have already prompted much hand-wringing from white progressives who compete to demonstrate their opposition to the right of juries to convict a man on capital crime cases.
He can easily raise or lower the temperature by having deputies, such as Holder or MSNBC host Al Sharpton, talk about the issue via black media outlets, black pastors and black political activists. “We do have to, as a society, ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions about these issues,” Obama told the reporters, wrapping his cynical political pitch in a uplifting mantle of flattering nuance.
In fact, Holder and Obama have already teamed up to offer early releases from prison to many people — most of whom are African-American — who received tough sentences for selling crack cocaine. The new focus on Lockett and the death penalty may be an extension of this pitch to African-American voters.
Besides, Obama doesn’t have many choices or much time. And if a more acceptable martyr appears in the next few months, Obama can switch and also trust his allies to bury Lockett’s memory, as he buried Martin’s memory after the election, long after the mixed-race defendant went into hiding following his acquittal by a mixed-race jury.
In the Rose garden, Obama made sure to to muffle opposition to use of the death-penalty bloody-shirt by saying he supported its use in “heinous crimes,” such as mass-murders or the the killing of children.
Of course, he did not say if the killing of the white teenager in Oklahoma counted as heinous. Maybe a reporter will ask White House press secretary Jay Carney that question.