How badly did Obama's failure to connect through Native media cost his party?
In contests across the U.S. on Election Day 2010, races were close, sometimes within the margin of Native American voters. Some observers say President Barack Obama could have done a better job of reaching out through the media to Native voters to encourage their support.
The White House targeted several groups this election season, including African Americans, Hispanics, women, and youth. Many times the president did interviews, attended rallies, and met with constituents of each group.
Absent in the outreach was specific attention to Native Americans – an effect that some say could have cost Democrats votes in tight races.
“I can’t speak for the White House or the Democratic National Committee, but as the election results showed, they’ve not done everything perfectly,” said Richard Prince, a multicultural journalism columnist for the Maynard Institute.
Prince had documented on his blog throughout the fall multiple Obama meetings with press subgroups, including one with black bloggers on Oct. 11. That meeting turned out to be controversial partly because some of the attendees were lacking in journalism credentials, but were still provided access to the president.
“I wouldn’t call those bloggers journalists,” Prince said. “Check out some of those celebrity-gossip websites.”
Two of the invited publications, “Media Take Out” and “Young, Black and Fabulous,” received the most scrutiny for their inclusion. Meanwhile, dozens of Native press outlets throughout the country were ignored altogether.
Beyond the bloggers, the president and senior administration officials met Oct. 15 with the Trotter Group, an organization of black columnists, discussing economic and other issues. Later in the month, he granted an extended interview with April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks, in which she highlighted several African-American voter concerns. Obama and his administration have previously called on Ryan multiple times at White House press briefings.
The direct outreach from the president was not limited to black journalists, as he granted an interview to Telemundo in September and one to Univision in October. Both outlets are aimed at Hispanic populations.
Also in October, Obama met with a female-only audience in Washington state, and made efforts to reach young voters via appearances at a youth rally on MTV and on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart.
Given the White House’s desire to reach important voting blocs – something Native Americans have proven themselves to be in swing elections in recent years – some Indian observers were surprised that Indian news outlets were excluded from Obama’s media blitz.
“I was surprised, especially with the fact there is no Native American journalists within the White House press group,” said Rhonda LeValdo, president of the Native American Journalists Association. “I think having some journalists that represent geographically Alaska Natives/Native Americans from across the country should be a priority since we are the outlets of information for many people in remote locations, some that do not even have access to Internet and rely on newspapers.”
She said that some party officials, including those in South Dakota and Alaska, tended to do a better job of encouraging the candidates to go to the Native communities, adding that “other states need to follow their lead because the Native vote is often overlooked.”
The White House responded by noting that the president has previously met with tribal leaders.
“He hosted the Tribal Nations conference last year, and of course, the agencies are doing their own outreach as well,” said Shin Inouye, a spokesman for the White House. The tribal leaders’ summit was held a full year before this year’s elections.
Obama also made a ceremonial gesture involving Indians during the end of the election season, issuing a proclamation supporting November as National Native American Heritage Month. Several administration agencies have held their own ceremonies to mark the month, but none were focused on getting out the Native American vote.
In 2008, Obama was supported by many Native American citizens who were impressed with his attention and efforts to campaign on reservations.
“He made history by campaigning in Indian country in his election bid – and I suspect he will do so again in two years,” said Indian columnist Mark Trahant.
As for this time around, Trahant said, “Could the president have done more? Sure. But that’s almost always true. I still maintain if you compare President Obama to any other president his record in Indian country is pretty good and that’s either as a campaigner or as an executive. Not perfect, but awfully strong.”
LeValdo said the president should have reached out to Native communities this year to encourage them to vote because “a lot of our issues are being decided by the people in the House and the Senate and if they don’t know what our issues are, how will they know how to vote?”
Karen Lincoln Michel, assistant managing editor at Green Bay Press-Gazette and past president of the UNITY: Journalists of Color organization, said that if Natives want access to the president, they have to be doing work to make it happen. She noted that the black columnists worked long and hard to secure their meeting.
“It would be great if Native journalists got the chance to ask some questions of President Obama from a Native American perspective,” Lincoln Michel said. “No one will ask the pertinent questions about policies affecting U.S. tribes like a Native American journalist, who understands the complexities of Native communities and the issues facing them.”
Prince said that in the case of the Trotter Group, of which he is a member, he knew the meeting “was a result of negotiations and outreach on the part of the [organization] that started even before President Obama was elected.”
Jeff Harjo, executive director of NAJA, said that to his knowledge the Native journalism group has not reached out to past presidential administrations to try to secure access – a fact that LeValdo said she would like to change with the current administration.
“It is an issue that needs to be addressed, and one that the Native American Journalists Association board will discuss at the next meeting on how we can get some leverage for our journalists,” LeValdo said.