July 11, 2012 -- Mitt Romney said after being booed at the NAACP today that he "expected" the strong objection in response to his pledge to repeal President Obama's health care law.
The black audience members rained boos on Romney three times during his speech -- first when he said he'd repeal the health law, once when he said Obama's record proves he hasn't done enough on the economy and other matters, and once when he told them that he would be a president who makes the lives of African-Americans better.
In a friendly-territory interview on Fox Business Network, Romney told the Republican-fond host Neil Cavuto, "I think we expected that, of course."
"I am going to give the same message to the NAACP that I give across the country, which is that Obamacare is killing jobs, and if jobs is the priority, then we're going to have to replace it with something that actually holds down healthcare costs, as opposed to causing more spending for the government and more spending for American families," Romney said.
Avis Jones-DeWeever, the executive director of the National Council of Negro Women, said Romney had accomplished a "calculated political ploy" by signaling to conservatives that he's willing to tell backers of the health law that he wants to cut it.
"That was like a victory lap on Fox News," she said. "That was exactly what he went there intending to do."
Critics in Obama's camp charged immediately after the speech that Romney planned to be booed in an effort to charge up Republican voters.
"I believe he included that part of the speech intentionally," Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said. "And I think the audience responded appropriately."
Reed, on a conference call organized by the Democratic National Committee after Romney's speech, accused Romney of staging a "political stunt" that was aimed more at Republicans who weren't in the room.
"He wasn't speaking to the NAACP audience at all," Reed said. "To his base it will make him look strong, but he never stands up to anybody else."
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter added that "black folks are not going to sit there and listen to some of that nonsense" and said that the episode was comparable to the optics of a video showing Romney speaking to black schoolchildren in Philadelphia.
"He's going through the motions. He's doing the things he thinks he needs to do. He's in a campaign. He's doing all kinds of stuff. You can't take any of this stuff seriously," Nutter said. "The guy is a joke. He's not for real. He's a character playing a role and virtually perpetrating fraud on the American public with a lot of this stuff."
Romney's speech was characterized by light applause throughout. The first and loudest objection erupted as Romney told the two-thirds-full room that he would cut spending by cutting "nonessential programs," and he said "that includes Obamacare."
Boos rang out for several seconds and echoed in the large ballroom in Houston. Romney paused and then cited a Chamber of Commerce study that said most people surveyed said the health law makes them less likely to hire people. He awkwardly continued to talk about Medicare and Social Security, and eventually earned minimal applause by talking about benefits for poor people.
Romney was booed again as he derided Obama on energy, trade, the size of government, education and the economy. "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," Romney said as the crowd jeered.
And Romney told the NAACP, "If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him." Some people clapped and some objected verbally. "You take a look," he added.
Tara Wall, a policy adviser to Romney, argued to reporters after the speech that Romney "received more applause than boos," including a standing ovation when the speech ended.
"If you want to count the handful of boos there were, I think we saw much more acceptance and applause of his speech a number of times," she said. "There was much more agreement over all from what I saw and heard."
The main message from Romney, a white Mormon whose father ran for president when blacks weren't even allowed to join the Mormon priesthood, was that black voters have been let down by the country's first black president.
He pitched his candidacy to the NAACP in a speech sprinkled with admiration for Obama's accomplishments, reminders of his own cooperation with Democrats during his time as governor in liberal Massachusetts, and promises to lead on civil rights if elected. He even bragged about getting a call from Obama to congratulate him on winning the nomination. It was a speech he never could have delivered during the radical GOP primary, when the mere mention of bipartisanship was all but a disqualifier.
He quoted Frederick Douglass, former NAACP head Benjamin Hooks, and Martin Luther King Jr., and he cited a study by the liberal Brookings Institution.
"If someone had told us in the 1950s or '60s that a black citizen would serve as the 44th president, we would have been proud and many would have been surprised," Romney said. "Picturing that day, we might have assumed that the American presidency would be the very last door of opportunity to be opened. Before that came to pass, every other barrier on the path to equal opportunity would surely have to come down.
"Of course, it hasn't happened quite that way. Many barriers remain. Old inequities persist. In some ways, the challenges are even more complicated than before. And across America – and even within your own ranks – there are serious, honest debates about the way forward."
The NAACP chairman, Benjamin Todd Jealous, said in a statement that Romney's stated agenda was "antithetical" to the group's interests. "His criticism of the Affordable Care Act – legislation that will improve access to quality health care for millions – signals his fundamental misunderstanding of the needs of many African Americans," he said.
Lurking in the background of Romney's speech was a Los Angeles Times story comparing Romney's bare record on civil rights with that of his father, George, who ran for president in 1968 and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with rights leaders in that decade. The paper noted that Romney has campaigned in front of mostly white crowds, that he rarely mentions his father's civil rights record, and that he declined to be interviewed about the issue.
"He has no record on civil rights," Leonard Alkins, a former president of the NAACP's Boston chapter who was on a panel advising Romney in Massachusetts, told The Times.
Black voters appear to have made up their mind about the presidential election, and Romney trails about as much as he can. Combining the last two ABC News polls to account for an adequate sample size of voters, blacks who are registered to vote prefer Obama over Romney by a staggering 96 percent to 3 percent.
Romney came to the NAACP with his own facts too, though. Like this one: "In June, while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually went up, from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent."
And this one: "Today, black children are 17 percent of students nationwide – but they are 42 percent of the students in our worst-performing schools."
Romney argued that as president he'd work with Democrats because when he was the governor of Massachusetts, he had to talk to Democrats just to get elected. "We don't count anybody out, and we sure don't make a habit of presuming anyone's support," he said.
His bottom-line pitch was that his "policies and vision will help hundreds of millions of middle-class Americans of all races, will lift people from poverty, and will help prevent people from becoming poor."
While he spoke kindly of Obama on a personal level, he was forceful in differentiating himself on policy.
"When President Obama called to congratulate me on becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, he said that he, quote, 'looked forward to an important and healthy debate about America's future,' " Romney said. "To date, I'm afraid that his campaign has taken a different course than that."
The Obama campaign was predictably unimpressed.
In a statement, Obama spokeswoman Clo Ewing said Romney "refused to use the opportunity today to finally lay out a plan for improving health care or education in this country."
"African Americans can't afford Romney economics," she said.