President Bush met yesterday with a group of black business, religious and community leaders, using the opportunity to talk up his plan to allow workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes to private accounts.
Joined by about a dozen aides, Bush met for nearly two hours at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with the group of 23, in a session described by participants as both informal and substantive. Beyond his Social Security plan, which Bush said would be particularly beneficial to blacks by creating inheritable accounts, the discussion touched on the president's efforts to funnel more social service money to faith-based institutions, his plans to press for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and aid to Africa, participants said.
President Bush focused on his ideas for a more independent society.
(Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
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"The president spent a lot of time briefing us on his initiative to reform Social Security," said Robert L. Woodson Sr., president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. "We are pleased that the president has touched the third rail and has not backed off of it."
Bush's meeting with the right-leaning black leaders came one day before a session with the 43-member Congressional Black Caucus, which, like much of the nation's black civil rights and political leadership, had a difficult relationship with the president during his first term. After meeting Bush during his first days in office, the caucus did not meet again with him until last February, when it forced a session by converging en masse at the White House. Similarly, Bush had a frosty relationship with the NAACP, the nation's largest civil rights group, during his first term.
"I believe that it is critically important that we work together with the president on behalf of the American people. When we disagree with the president, we will stand up and do so," said Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), the caucus chairman.
For years, GOP leaders have talked about the potential for making inroads among black voters, many of whom are culturally conservative. In polls, large numbers of blacks voice support for issues often identified with the GOP. Many black voters are anti-abortion, favor school choice and back efforts to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Still, those views have not translated into many black votes for Bush. In the last election, Bush won 11 percent of the black vote -- an increase of twopercentage points over his 2000 performance. But GOP strategists saw hope in states such as Ohio, where Bush won about 16 percent of the black vote, a showing many analysts attributed to the presence on the ballot of an initiative banning same-sex marriage.
The issue of Bush's support for a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage was raised by several participants at yesterday's meeting, but Bush demurred, explaining that the issue is a non-starter in Congress -- at least for now. "He was noncommittal on it because he's got other priorities," Woodson said.
Bush was more interested in talking about his ideas for moving society toward greater independence and less reliance on government. "His whole notion of an ownership society and African Americans owning homes and businesses was very much on his mind," said Michelle D. Bernard, a senior vice president at the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative research group.
Among others who attended the meeting were the Rev. Joe Watkins of Philadelphia's Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church; the Rev. Eugene Rivers of the TenPoint Coalition in Boston -- one of the leading proponents of Bush's faith-based initiative; Deborah Wright, chief executive officer of New York's Carver Federal Savings Bank; and John Bryant, chief executive officer of Operation HOPE, a Los Angeles-based group that teaches financial literacy.