MIAMI — A top aide to President Obama got a public grilling Monday night from black lawmakers and civil rights leaders, who vented frustration at a jobs forum here that the administration was not doing more to directly help distressed black communities.
Tensions rose when Don Graves, executive director of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, told a lively crowd of hundreds in a black church sanctuary that Obama was “focused on every community across the country.”
When he added that “certain communities have been hit harder than other communities,” one lawmaker pressed him for specificity.
“Let me hear you say ‘black,’” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).
As the crowd erupted in cheers, Graves responded quietly: “Black, African-American, Latino, these communities have been hard hit.”
The exchange illustrated an emerging tension between some black lawmakers and the country’s first black president over the disproportionately poor economic conditions in the African-American community, where unemployment stands at 16 percent.
Obama and his aides say all Americans including blacks benefit from broad-based policies. But many black lawmakers and civil rights leaders want direct, targeted aid — and some worry that Obama’s pursuit of white independent voters might make him reluctant to advocate for blacks.
Monday’s forum was the latest stop in a month-long jobs tour being led by the Congressional Black Caucus , which hosted earlier events in Cleveland, Detroit and Atlanta.
On Monday, the forum’s moderator, MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall, zeroed in on the tension point over aid. She asked the half-dozen lawmakers and Graves about Obama adviser David Axelrod’s Sunday comments to ABC that “we’ve got to move the entire country forward … not just one community.”
Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif..) described the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach as “a bunch of bull.”
Later, she turned to Graves and asked if he would be willing to take the dozens of pieces of jobs-related legislation that have been authored by caucus members to the White House so the president might consider using executive authority to enact them.
“You all don’t need to go through me to get to the president,” Graves responded.
“Mr. Graves,” Richardson responded sternly. “Let’s be honest. We have met with the president. We are asking you in the capacity of your position [at the council on] jobs, are you willing to review our bills, to work with us?”
When Graves replied softly that he was, Richardson said: “We will see you when we return.”
As the crowd quieted, Graves tried to offer more assurances.
“You may not feel like the president is listening to you, but he hears you loud and clear,” Graves said.
Waters, who last week in Detroit blasted the White House for not having a jobs strategy in the black community, did not seem satisfied.
“I’m 72 years old,” she told Graves. “I’ve been elected by the people, served in the legislature, now in the Congress, and if I’m reduced to having you take my message to the president, I should go home.”
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), whose Miami-area district includes some of South Florida’s poorest neighborhoods, cautioned the crowd that Obama cannot afford to be the advocate many want him to be.
“If he comes and speaks out for black people in the middle of this, he will lose his reelection, and you know it,” she said.
African-Americans are Obama’s most loyal base constituency, continuing to back him with near-90-percent job approval ratings. A July Washington Post/ABC poll showed some frustrations, however, with the number of African-Americans who believe Obama’s actions have helped the economy dropping from 77 percent in October to just over half.
Just about everyone in the room Monday night appeared committed to helping Obama win reelection. The lawmakers pledged to support him, and calls for voter mobilization and registration were met with thunderous applause.
The lawmakers turned much of their fire on the tea party movement, accusing Republicans of conspiring to block Obama’s agenda to ensure his defeat next year — and lamenting that the president did not call out his foes more directly.
When Graves at one point referred generically to the “folks” opposing the president, Waters challenged him to speak more forcefully.
“Say ‘tea party,’” she said. “Say it.”
He did, reluctantly.
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