Under fire from some black lawmakers for not directly addressing rising unemployment in their communities, President Obama appeared Tuesday morning on a popular African-American-oriented radio show to assure listeners that he understands their concerns.
Obama reflected on the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the Mall, noting that King devoted much of his attention to employment matters.
“It’s always important to remember that when Dr. King gave the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, that was a march for jobs and justice, not just justice,” Obama said during the interview on the Tom Joyner Morning Show. “And the last part of his life, when he went down to Memphis, that was all about sanitation workers saying, ‘I am a man,’ and then looking for economic justice and dealing with poverty.
“It’s not enough for us to just remember the sanitized version of what Dr. King stood for,” the president added.
Obama’s remarks were part of an effort by his administration to remind black voters that the country’s first black president is fighting for them, even if he is not heeding the demands of some black lawmakers and crafting policies specifically aimed at boosting struggling African-American communities. Blacks remain Obama’s staunchest base – giving him 90-percemt-plus approval ratings – but some Democrats worry that worsening economic conditions in that community might hamper Obama’s efforts in next year’s reelection campaign to mobilize the mass African-American turnout he needs to win.
Black unemployment stands at 15.9 percent – far higher than the 9.1-percent overall rate.
Tension between Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus is not new, but in recent weeks caucus members have traveled the country holding jobs fairs and town halls designed to put public pressure on the White House to address black joblessness as part of the plan Obama will announce next week.
The president offered no hints Tuesday as to what, if any, of his ideas might offer targeted help to blacks.
But he repeatedly reminded listeners that he is acutely aware of his own background.
He talked about King’s work making possible his very presence in the Oval Office. And he described two important symbols that he sees every day – the Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges, the black child who integrated a New Orleans elementary school, newly installed in the White House, and a framed original program from King’s March on Washington.
“They’re reminders as we go through the day and we’re working hard here to make sure that we’re putting people back to work and getting the economy going again that we stand on the shoulders of a lot of people who made a lot of sacrifices,” Obama said. “And it’s important for us to make sure that we’re following through on those commitments even if it’s slow and frustrating sometimes.”
“Yeah,” replied Joyner, “it’s slow and frustrating.”