HOUSTON, Texas — The black leaders that attended the NAACP Convention here Thursday heaped praise on Vice President Joe Biden for a heated morning speech, but one question quietly pervaded the gathering: Where was President Obama?
Obama's decision to skip the annual convention in the heat of his re-election bid has been a point of constant speculation here in recent days, providing a sort of microcosm for how the black community views the nation's first African-American president as he nears the end of his first term.
"The people here overwhelmingly supported President Obama, would have loved to have President Obama here. So there's definitely some disappointment about that," said Dedrick Muhammad, director of the NAACP's Economic Department.
Convention organizers said the president's office cited a "scheduling conflict" as the reason he couldn't attend. (Obama spent today in Washington D.C., and has no major public events.) And the president did make an effort to ensure the convention that he hadn't forgotten them, appearing in a brief, pre-taped video praising the organization that aired before Biden's address.
But one former Obama administration official noted to BuzzFeed that the move looked like a snub.
"Even considering the politics here, it seems odd that the first African-American President is sending his vice president to address the NAACP national convention in an election year," the official said.
Most of the convention's audience, comprised of black civic leaders, business owners, and community activists, were reluctant to criticize Obama to the press, even as they complained about his neglect off the record — a reflection of a sense of protectiveness among many African-Americans, and an understanding that Obama must at times disappoint.
But theories abound as to why Obama skipped the convention, with rumors being passed around over dinner buffets and in Starbucks lines. Several attendees claimed that a rift had recently formed between the NAACP board and the First Lady's office (though no one had firsthand knowledge of the supposed breaking point). Others speculated that conservatives would have used the president's presence at the convention to appeal to racist voters. And one prominent civil rights leader was still holding out hope minutes before Biden's speech was scheduled to begin that the president would surprise the convention and show up.
Alvin Chambliss, a retired law professor at Texas Southern University and lifelong members of the NAACP, blamed Obama's advisers — particularly Valerie Jarrett — for his decision not to show up, echoing a common complaint here about the people in the president's inner circle. Chambliss, who called the president's absence "a downer," said Jarrett is too afraid of Obama becoming defined by his race, and has led him to take his African-American supporters for granted.
"I don't think there's anyone around the president who's really, truly from the black community," Chambliss said. "We have to re-elect him, but I pray that his second term will be different from his first term."
Chambliss went on to say he "long[ed] for the day when the NAACP will be an organization where every president, whether Republican or Democrat, would come because there would be punitive damages for not coming. But today is obviously not that day."
"We can give him a pass," Chambliss concluded. "But to say it was a scheduling conflict, that's bull. At the end of the day, it's the NAACP; you schedule stuff around them. You're supposed to know when there's a convention, and you're supposed to come."