When President Obama takes the stage Saturday for his annual address to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, it is certain to be a warm and festive affair, but probably a little less festive and lot more more urgent than on previous occasions.
In the audience will be Rep. Maxine Waters (D), the California congresswoman who has been a lead critic of the president and his administration for not being sufficiently focused on the stubborn problem of black unemployment. Waters says she expects more from Obama on Saturday.
“African Americans are very proud that there is an African American man who is the most powerful man in the world, and they hold on to that with everything they possibly can, but it’s starting to slip because of the pain of the African American community,” she said.
The speech, which the White House says will focus in part on the American Jobs Act, comes as Obama has faced a softening of support among African American voters and a chorus of criticism from black politicians who now feel free to break what had become the eleventh commandment among black elected officials: Thou shall not speak ill of the first black president.
With fourteen months to go before he stands for reelection, Obama has the challenge of reengaging black voters, a crucial part of the coalition that helped him get elected in 2008. That means making the rounds on black media outlets and shoring up his relationships with the old guard of black political leadership.
This has been trickier than expected. In August, there was grumbling among some members about the president’s approach to the economy — complaints that the White House was not attentive to the pain the recession was causing in black communities.
The president’s recent outreach and his jobs bill have muted some of the criticism, but in some ways the criticism itself was a notable political event, reflective of the harsh economic times.
Polls show that blacks are more likely than before to say that the country is on the wrong track and are less inclined to have favorable views of Obama.
Campaign aides push back on such polls, citing surveys showing Obama grabbing 90 percent of the black vote when matched with a Republican challenger.
But there are concerns about an enthusiasm gap.
No public official has been more vocal and visible in challenging the White House on its economic approach than Waters, who heads the CBC’s jobs initiative.
Last month, in an episode she calls “vintage Maxine,” Waters sought permission from the audience to criticize Obama.
Speaking at a CBC jobs fair in Detroit, she urged the audience to “unleash” black elected officials from the unwritten rule of not openly criticizing the president.
“It was the women in the audience who were angry, and they were insistent that we do something, that we talk to the president, that we get the president to understand what was happening to them,” she said, recalling the incident during an interview in her, adding that she saw widespread discontent in the cities she visited. “It was a moment where I felt that we had to stop shoving it under the rug.”
The CBC’s multi-city jobs fair tour, which several White House staffers attended, embodied the distressingly high unemployment figures in black communities in a way that no statistics could — the snaking lines of thousands of unemployed people in urban centers gave flesh to what had previously been only a talking point for much of Beltway Washington.
Although Obama endorsed the jobs fairs, they put his administration and his economic policies in a harsh light, and Republicans noticed.
“What they have done is picked up on the fact that the president was not specifically talking about it, and what they have done is grabbed that space,” Waters said, noting that six congressional Republicans talked to her about the high unemployment rate in black communities after seeing the jobs fair coverage. “Either they are attempting to embarrass the president or they are attempting to say, ‘We aren’t so bad’ ”
Obama has always walked a racial tightrope, careful not alienate white supporters with overt outreach and policy efforts aimed at African Americans.
But the sustained economic downturn has hit blacks hard.
The black unemployment rate has ticked up to 15.9 percent on Obama’s watch, up from 11.5 percent when he took office, and blacks have also been hit hard by the housing market collapse.
In the past few days, White House officials have met with top black radio personalities to discuss the American Jobs Act, and Obama had his first sit-down interview with Black Entertainment Television, which airs on Monday.
In coming weeks, the Obama reelection team will bring on an African American vote director charged with mobilizing voters and volunteers, launch a Web page for black voters that deals with Obama’s record on issues that are important to black communities, and begin planning events similar to the African American beauty salons and barbershops programming in 2008. White House aides say the president maintains good working relationships with CBC members, especially those with leadership roles, such as Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C), a member of the deficit supercommittee.
And the Democratic National Committee, which bought radio spots for Obama’s jobs bill on urban airwaves, and the campaign team will begin to bring on more cable-ready surrogates from the ranks of black elected officials and black academia, which will add to Al Sharpton’s presence on MSNBC.
Sharpton and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (D), who is emerging as a top surrogate, have been especially protective of Obama, saying that criticism by blacks could lead to low voter turnout.
“It’s unfair for members of our community to try to force this president to prove his blackness by making some affirmative appeal which weakens him for the general election,” Reed said. “We have to be aggressive in making this president’s case and out there saying things that in many instances he cannot say around race.”
Staff writer Vanessa Williams contributed to this report.