Making a rare appearance before a predominantly black audience, President Bush on Thursday touted his administration's initiatives to bolster education, increase homeownership and restructure Social Security, saying those efforts accrue to the benefit of African Americans.
Speaking before about 3,200 people at a luncheon at the Indiana Black Expo, a statewide business and youth development organization, Bush listed a series of milestones achieved by black citizens under his watch. He cited a record number of black homeowners, sharp increases in the number of loans to black-owned small businesses, and a narrowing in the wide achievement gap separating black students from their white and Asian counterparts.
Bush pointed to the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test often referred to as "the nation's report card." The results, released Thursday, showed black elementary-school students making significant gains in math and reading scores between 1999 and 2004.
"We're making big differences in the lives of African Americans," Bush said in his remarks at the RCA Dome. "I say, we -- let me get this straight -- I'm talking about good teachers, and good principals and engaged parents."
Although Bush has hosted several majority-black groups at the White House, most recently to honor Black Music Month and to celebrate Black History Month, he does not frequently appear before black audiences as he travels the country. That partly reflects political reality: Eleven percent of blacks voted for him in 2004, according to exit polls, up from 8 percent in 2000.
Still, Bush regularly points to the racial diversity of his top staff and says he is eager to form constructive relationships with voters of all backgrounds.
Before Thursday's speech, Indiana Black Expo honored Bush with its lifetime achievement award. In his remarks, Bush touted his faith-based initiative, which provides social service funding to religious groups, as well as what he sees as the benefits to blacks and others of his vision for an "ownership society."
That philosophy underlies his administration's efforts to reduce dependence on expensive federal programs such as public housing, Medicare and Social Security by creating new homeowners, encouraging people to more closely manage their health care and allowing people to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into private accounts.
Bush's appearance in Indianapolis came as the NAACP, the nation's largest civil rights organization, was holding its national convention in Milwaukee. The White House turned down the organization's request for Bush to speak before its meeting, saying Bush was already committed to speak to the Indiana Black Expo.
The NAACP has been at odds with Bush since the vigorous efforts of its political arm to defeat him in the 2000 election. Bush, meanwhile, is the first sitting president not to address the group in more than half a century. Bush, however, has spoken before other civil rights groups, such as the National Urban League, that have not been as critical of his policies.
Julian Bond, the NAACP board chairman and a frequent critic of the president, said he regretted that Bush chose not to attend the convention. He proceeded to extend an offer for Bush to speak at the group's 2006 national convention in Washington.
"It's only a cab ride away from the White House," Bond said.
In Bush's absence, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman appeared before the NAACP on Thursday, and, in an unusually personal speech, apologized for attitudes that led many GOP politicians to ignore black voters, or to "try to benefit politically from racial polarization" in years past. He noted that his grandfather, a Baltimore native, was a NAACP member and vowed that his party will do better. "The party of Lincoln," Mehlman said, "will not be whole again, and won't truly reflect the dream of African American political empowerment until we effectively and forthrightly respond to the cause of the African American community."
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, in his own remarks to the NAACP, was not buying the GOP's more inclusive message. "The Republican Party's 'southern strategy' used in the 1960s and 1970s lives today," Dean said. "In 2000, they used the racially charged word 'quota' to divide African Americans. In 2004, they used gay marriage. And just you wait: In 2006 its going to be immigrants."