HOUSTON — Mitt Romney's speech before the NAACP Wednesday was meant as an olive branch to the black community, but his sharp criticisms of President Barack Obama and a vow to repeal his rival's health care law drew sustained boos and a chilly reception.
The tone of his speech surprised many attending the annual convention. Many of them had praised Romney beforehand for making an appearance. But as they left the hall, a number of people said the former Massachusetts governor's statements energized them to work for Obama's re-election campaign.
Though Romney's late father, George, was a forceful advocate for civil rights as governor of Michigan, Romney has campaigned in front of predominantly white audiences for much of this year. The candidate and his campaign have acknowledged that they have an uphill challenge in winning over black voters.
The audience initially welcomed the presumed Republican nominee with a standing ovation and applauded when he promised to represent "all Americans of every race, creed and sexual orientation," and noted that "old inequities persist" even a half-century after the civil rights movement.
But murmurs of disagreement rippled through the crowd early on when he argued that his policies would help "families of any color more than the policies and leadership of President Obama." When he added that he would reduce spending, in part, by eliminating "non-essential, expensive programs" like the president's health care law, the audience booed for 15 seconds. When Romney harshly criticized the president for failing to create jobs and "better educate tomorrow's workers," he appeared to have punctured much of the goodwill that was initially directed his way.
Romney stood quietly behind the podium, smiling at the audience as it voiced disapproval. "I do not have a hidden agenda," he continued. "If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him."
To a scattering of boos and catcalls, the candidate paused and nodded firmly before continuing.
"You take a look," he said.
While a few audience members credited Romney for his bluntness, a number of his listeners suggested that he had intended to be provocative.
"He wasn't speaking to us," NAACP chairman emeritus Julian Bond said. "He was speaking to that slice of white America that hasn't made up its mind about him, and he's saying, 'Look at me, I'm okay. I can get along with the Negroes. I can say things to them that they don't like, so I'm not afraid to stand up to them. . . . I think that's what this is all about, and that's the reason he came."
Though Romney's speech included many of the themes he touches on regularly, he tailored his message to his audience by emphasizing, for example, that the unemployment rate among African-Americans is 14.4 percent, well above the national unemployment rate of 8.2 percent.
He also focused on what he called "institutionalized inequality" in the nation's schools and his plans to expand school choice — noting that while black children make up 17 percent of students, "they are 42 percent of the students in our worst-performing schools." Romney pledged to tie federal school funding more directly to each student.
Alfred Poucette Jr., a retired bus mechanic from Lake Charles, La., said that while he appreciated Romney's focus on education, he was concerned that his plans would divert money from the nation's public schools. He described Romney's tone as condescending. "I think he came here more to appease us," he said.
But Johnnie Crockett of Fort Worth, Texas, who works as a youth adviser to the NAACP, said that while some of Romney's comments "were not in good taste," she thought "he was really trying to reach everybody."
"He shouldn't pretend just for our organization," she said. "He should be who he is."
Tara Wall, a Romney adviser, argued that the speech was the beginning "of a conversation" and that there was "a lot more applause than there were boos."
"They appreciate us for showing up," she told reporters.
Obama chose not to attend this year's NAACP convention because of scheduling issues, White House aides said Wednesday. Vice President Joe Biden will address the association today.