Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) took part in a Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) town hall meeting on jobs in Detroit on Tuesday and found herself in the middle of a family fight. It’s a fight that brought to the surface the complicated, schizophrenic bind that black members of Congress find themselves in with the administration of the first black president of the United States and their constituents who love him. And her response was a plea for freedom, for constituents to “unleash us.”
We don’t put pressure on the president. Let me tell you why. We don’t put pressure on the president because y’all love the president. You love the president. You’re very proud . . . to have a black man [in the White House] . . . First time in the history of the United States of America. If we go after the president too hard, you’re going after us. . . . When you tell us it’s all right and you unleash us, and you tell us you're ready for us to have this conversation, we’re ready to have the conversation. . . . All I’m saying to you is, we’re politicians. We’re elected officials. We are trying to do the right thing and the best thing. When you let us know it is time to let go, we’ll let go.
A woman in the crowd loudly called back, “Let go!” That must have been music to Waters’s ears. And to the ears of other African American lawmakers who want to do to the Obama administration what they’ve done to every other administration — hold it accountable. With 16 percent unemployment in the black community, being able to challenge the president and his administration on policy without fear of reprisal from the folks back home is imperative. But it has been tough.
As Waters said, CBC members are catching hell from their constituents over the lack of jobs and a host of other problems. With any other president, CBC members would be able to say they couldn’t get the attention of the White House or that they can’t get the administration to focus or that the proposals coming from the president are inadequate. Not so with President Obama.
Because of the deep affection for the first black president, as Waters noted, constituents didn’t want to hear anything that remotely came close to criticizing Obama or his administration. It’s an emotional response, to be sure, especially when you recognize that those same folks agree with every knock on the president and the administration on policy grounds. But to criticize Obama was to ask for a beat-down. (Trust me, that threat extends to African American pundits who dare to say something negative.) This, in turn, caused black members of Congress to pull their punches or go mute on important issues for fear of riling up the folks back home who would view them as disloyal. Or as a friend put it to me yesterday, the relationship between Obama, black members of Congress and their constituents is like that of children of divorced parents. Congress is the mom. Their constituents are the kids. And Obama is the father who’s seen only once in a while. Mom won’t say anything bad about the father in front of the children because they’ll shout back: “Don’t talk bad about my father!”
All that changed at that in Detroit on Tuesday. The people shouting down Waters at that CBC town hall signaled an end to the idea that having policy disagreements with Obama and having love or admiration for Obama are mutually exclusive. Which is good, because when the president unveils his jobs plan next month, the CBC must be “unleashed” to ensure that their constituents’ needs and concerns are part of the mix.