The Washington Post

Obama defends record to black voters

In an interview aimed directly at black voters, President Obama cast aside criticism he has received from black political leaders and defended his record.

“There have been a handful of African American leaders who have been critical,” Obama said in an exclusive report on BET News that aired Monday night. “They were critical when I was running for president. There’s always going to be someone who is critical of the president of the United States. That’s my job.”

The interview, which was taped Friday, is especially timely because of negative reaction from some members of the Congressional Black Caucus to a speech Obama gave Saturday night at their foundation’s annual dinner, where he implored the caucus to stop complaining and “march with” him.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called Obama’s remarks “curious” in an interview on MSNBC and said she did not know who he was talking to.

“I think he got carried away,” she said. He “got off script and got a little bit beside himself.”

BET billed the interview as Obama’s answer to black America, which has an unemployment rate of 16.7 percent compared with a national unemployment rate of 9.1 percent.

He was also answering members of the CBC, who launched a jobs tour this summer during which members accused Washington of a lack of focus on the black community's economic struggles.

Obama defended his record, saying he is spending all of his time working to help “some kid on the south side of Chicago that doesn’t have a shot right now,” and also those living in Los Angeles barrios and Appalachia. But he also refused to say he would target government programs to blacks.

“That’s not how America works. America works when all of us are pulling together and everybody is focused on making sure that every single person has opportunity,” Obama said. “And so when we put forward a program like, for example, the health-care bill, our focus is people who don’t have health care. Now it turns out that the majority of folks who don’t have health care are also working families, and are disproportionately African American and Latino, but that doesn’t mean that it’s only for them.”

Obama also said that when he reflects back on his tenure in the White House, he thinks his administration did not do a good job communicating what they were doing for the American people.

“I think that the more you’re in this office, the more you have to say to yourself that telling a story to the American people is just as important as the actual policies that you’re implementing,” he said.

Obama’s support among all groups, including among African Americans, has been slipping. Five months ago, 83 percent of African Americans held “strongly favorable” views of Obama. But in a new Washington Post-ABC news poll, that number dropped to 58 percent.

The president said he has seen the frustration and understands the impatience. “Some of the things, though, that have been plaguing the African American community for too long, those things are going to take years to change,” he said.

When asked how the black community would be reassured that Obama is concerned about them, Obama said he thinks they know he cares.

“All I get from the African American community as I travel around the country is, ‘We’re behind you,’ ” he said. “And so, I think the main thing I want the African American community to know is just, those prayers are appreciated. Them rooting for me is appreciated.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.

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