For Obama, Warm Regards

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and several thousand of their supporters wrapped President Obama in a warm embrace at a gala banquet Saturday night, as Obama reminded the crowd of the initiatives he has enacted in the early months of his presidency.

Those gathered in the banquet room at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center jumped to their feet and erupted in loud applause as Obama, accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama, took the stage to strains of "Hail to the Chief."

The 42-member caucus feted Obama, a former colleague, as a returning hero, even though since becoming president he has not always embraced its brand of progressive politics.

Obama has signed legislation pushing for pay equity for women and expanding health care for young people, and he has dramatically increased spending on education and expanded services for the unemployed. Those initiatives enjoyed strong support from most caucus members and their constituents.

But the president faces decisions that may separate him from his former caucus colleagues. His effort to reform health care, now taking shape in Congress, is unlikely to include a broad, government-run insurance option to compete with private insurance companies. Obama has voiced support for the public option, an idea that has wide support among members of the black caucus, but moderate Senate Democrats are skeptical, and Obama has said he doesn't want it to be a deal breaker.

Also, the president is mulling whether to change strategy in Afghanistan, where the commanding officer has said more troops would be necessary to complete the current mission. Many members of the caucus oppose escalating U.S. involvement in the war there.

"This president is literally the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of millions of people," NAACP President Benjamin T. Jealous said. "But he has come to a crossroads of his first year in office."

On health care, Jealous said Obama is "headed toward a moment that the White House would consider a victory but that his base consider a loss."

Like many self-styled progressives, Jealous said he thinks a public option is essential to keeping health-care costs down.

Obama also has drawn criticism for White House efforts to persuade New York Gov. David A. Paterson (D), whose approval ratings have been anemic, to quit his faltering 2010 campaign for a full term.

Speaking on "Washington Watch," a public affairs show scheduled to air Sunday on TV One, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) called the White House effort to push Paterson out of the race hamhanded.

"I abhor what I hear. If what I hear is true, it was absolutely done in a sophomoric way," Clyburn said. "There is a way to deal with these kinds of things, and for some strange reason, some pretty astute politicians dealt with it wrongly -- in my opinion."

Many of those issues remained below the surface Saturday night. "The president is doing a great job," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the caucus chairman. "I think his agenda has been a unifying agenda."

In his remarks, Obama said that when he took office the nation was on the verge of economic collapse. But financial bailouts and enactment of the $787 billion economic stimulus package have brought the nation back from the brink, he said.

"Because of the action we have taken so far, we have stopped the bleeding in our economy," he said. Obama added that the downturn has hit black and other minority communities "with particular ferocity."

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