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Washington Post: Black lawmakers call on Obama to do more on behalf of blacks

December 10, 2009
In The News

By Michael D. Shear and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 2009 10:06 PM

Some black lawmakers sought this week to move past a dispute with the White House, saying they are satisfied that President Obama is seeking to provide greater economic assistance to African American communities.

But the members of the Congressional Black Caucus continued to insist that the administration's efforts do not go far enough, even as other African American leaders defended the nation's first black president.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who had led nine black lawmakers in holding up a financial regulation bill that Obama supported, said an agreement Monday with House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has eased her concerns.

"Absolutely, they got the message," Waters said after weeks of closed-door discussions with Obama officials.

On Monday, Frank agreed to Waters's proposal to steer $3 billion from the federal Troubled Assets Relief Program toward mortgage relief for the unemployed. The bill also sets aside $1 billion for a program that gives grants to state and local governments to buy foreclosed properties and use them for more productive purposes.

Waters said Tuesday that the two proposals would go a long way toward meeting the goals of the members of the caucus.

"I'm always happy when we win," Waters said.

But Waters and some of her colleagues in the caucus continue to express doubts about the administration's commitment to job creation in black communities.

In a speech Tuesday, Obama called for tax cuts for small businesses, incentives to hire new workers and a fresh round of infrastructure spending. He also recommended financial incentives for home weatherization.

After the speech, Waters praised Obama's comments but said she wants to "keep the pressure on" the administration. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the caucus, pressed for more direct efforts to help reduce black unemployment.

"We believe that tackling systemic inequality requires specific, concrete and targeted action," Lee said. "The Congressional Black Caucus is committed to working with President Obama to address the needs of those who are hurting most and to ensure that existing disparities don't grow wider."

Asked about those concerns Wednesday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, "The president believes the ideas that he outlined are targeted and responsible in addressing those problems."

The weeks-long grumbling about the administration is a rare public eruption of long-simmering frustrations among some caucus members with Obama, who, as Illinois's junior senator, belonged to the caucus and, as the Democratic presidential nominee, had the group's enthusiastic support.

For black lawmakers, the dispute reveals the difficult terrain they navigate when challenging a historic and popular presidency. It also underscored the rift between the administration and the party's progressive wing, which has been disappointed about a variety of issues.

For months, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), a liberal stalwart, has criticized Obama publicly over what Conyers has seen as timidity on health-care legislation and the president's direction on the war in Afghanistan.

Waters and others have said they hit a wall in their efforts to get attention for the plight of black Americans, who face 15.6 percent unemployment. And some caucus members have privately fumed that Obama and his staff spend more time reaching out to conservative Democrats than they do to African Americans and other progressives.

Responding to the criticism, the president said in an interview last week that "the most important thing I can do for the African American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is get the economy going again and get people hiring again."

Gibbs said Wednesday that Obama called Conyers to express his concern about the comments.

The caucus members' confrontational approach, including their boycott of a committee vote after a meeting with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, is at odds with some others in the black community.

"In the position that he's in, he's doing the very most he can," Deborah Wright, the chief executive of a small bank in Harlem, said of Obama.

Al Sharpton, a black activist and radio host, also rejected caucus members' criticisms.

"To confuse making his role our role is not a service to us," said Sharpton, who ran for president in 2004 and works with the administration on education issues. "If he creates jobs, and those jobs reach our community, I'm not concerned that he's not on a soap box."

Obama's approval among blacks remains high, although it has dropped slightly since the start of his presidency. In Washington Post polls over the past two months, 89 percent of black respondents have said they approve of the president, compared with 96 percent in February and March.

Administration officials say that reflects the success of programs designed to help the black community that -- despite Obama's rhetoric -- have been put in place during the past year. Those include more aid for historically black colleges, the Choice Neighborhood Initiative to address poverty and housing in black neighborhoods, and a $1.5 billion program to prevent homelessness.

Wright said her small Harlem institution, Carver Federal Savings Bank, has benefited from the government's bank bailout and from the TARP legislation that Obama pushed through Congress.

"They haven't called up and said, 'Here's your silver plate, just pick it up,' " she said. "But they have pushed money through the various levers they can."

Staff writer Krissah Williams and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.