WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney made his case for the presidency to African-American voters Wednesday when he told the NAACP that his policies would help lift families of all backgrounds — including impoverished African-Americans — more so than those of President Obama, whom black voters overwhelmingly support.
But the polite reception Romney initially received — with applause generously sprinkled in as he promoted free enterprise, strong families, and traditional marriage — turned to sustained boos when he said he would repeal Obama’s health reform law that the Supreme Court recently upheld.
“If our goal is jobs, we must, must stop spending over $1 trillion more than we earn. To do this, I will eliminate every expensive nonessential program I can find, and that includes Obamacare,” Romney said in his speech to the NAACP National Convention in Houston.
The boos, which lasted about 10 seconds, forced Romney to stop speaking and smile.
He then pointed his fingers at the audience and attempted to defend himself, citing a Chamber of Commerce survey saying that the health care law has prevented businesses from hiring.
The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to repeal the law, a purely symbolic and political move that is not expected to make it past the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Michael Curry, president of the Boston NAACP, who attended the Houston gathering with about two dozen other NAACP leaders from Massachusetts, called Romney’s jab at Obama’s signature domestic accomplishment disrespectful, given the audience — and disingenuous, given Romney’s role in ushering through similar legislation as governor of Massachusetts, on which the national law was modeled.
“His speech was twofold. He was speaking to an NAACP audience but he was also speaking to his base,” Curry said.
“You don’t come into the house of the NAACP and not address the issues of lack of access to primary care and the millions who are uninsured or underinsured, many being black and brown.”
Romney indicated when he took the stage that he knew would be speaking to a predominantly Democratic audience, saying he was surprised and honored by the invitation to address the convention.
The latest Gallup poll of black voters shows that 87 percent support Obama, and just 5 percent support Romney.
“I want you to know that if I did not believe that my policies and my leadership would help families of color — and families of any color — more than the policies and leadership of President Obama, I would not be running for president,” Romney said.
He told Fox Business Network Wednesday that he expects to be able to chip away at the 96 percent African-American vote Obama commanded in 2008 because “the president has not been able to get the job done.”
In his speech, Romney argued that African-Americans have suffered disproportionately under the Obama presidency because of the dismal economy.
“If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone.
“Instead, it’s worse for African-Americans in almost every way,” Romney said. “The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, and median family wealth are all worse for the black community.”
He cited June’s disappointing unemployment figures, which remained stuck at 8.2 percent for the country as a whole, while the unemployment rate for African-Americans rose from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent.
Romney drew applause for promoting vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools as well as charter schools, and touted his work as Massachusetts governor to expand charter schools by working with the Black Legislative Caucus.
African-American children make up 17 percent of students nationwide, Romney said, but comprise 42 percent of students in the country’s worst-performing schools — an example of institutionalized inequity, he said.
But Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, said Romney failed to articulate how his policies would fix the inequities facing communities of color when it comes to education, health care, and wealth.
“His concerns about education were to attack the teachers’ unions rather than address the real concerns,” Cofield said. “And he certainly seemed to miss the boat in regards to the plight of African-Americans and other people of color. He’d like to say that a rising tide lifts all boats, but a disparity remains if there is not a systematic effort to end those disparities.”
Curry said Romney does not have much of a record to stand on as governor when it comes to solving racial inequities, citing his administration’s attempt to weaken affirmative action in hiring.
“If he’s going to talk about violence and poverty, what record does he have as governor to address those issues?” Curry said. “Did he practice what he preaches? He doesn’t have anything to stand on.”
Romney sought to sharpen his contrast with Obama — promising to open up energy, expand trade, cut the growth of government, better educate workers, and restore economic freedom — while accusing the president of failing to improve the nation’s economic lot.
“The president will say he will do those things, but he will not, he cannot, and his record of the last four years proves it, definitively,” Romney said.
“If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him.”
Obama, who addressed the convention in 2008 and 2009, is not speaking to the group this time, citing a scheduling conflict.
Vice President Joe Biden will speak at the gathering Thursday.