From the start of his history-making tenure, the nation’s first black president took care never to be seen making policy or political decisions aimed solely or directly at black America. His position: He is the president of the whole country, focused on broad-based fixes to “lift all boats.”
The race-avoidance strategy served President Obama well, helping him attract support from many whites while also mobilizing African Americans energized by the powerful symbol of a black commander in chief.
But a soaring jobless rate among African Americans and a newfound comfort by black lawmakers to criticize Obama’s economic policies are prompting the White House to recalibrate — and to focus more directly on the struggles of black America.
The shift comes amid a growing concern among some Democrats that the stubborn economic conditions in minority communities might hamper efforts by Obama’s reelection campaign to generate the large black voter turnout it needs in key cities to make up for his declining support among white independents.
This week, the White House dispatched a top official to participate in a Congressional Black Caucus jobs forum in Miami that had been scheduled in part to pressure the White House.
The official, Don Graves, the executive director of the president’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, told black lawmakers that the president would consider taking executive action to enact at least parts of jobs-related measures they have introduced to no avail in the Republican-led House.
“You may not feel like the president is listening to you, but he hears you loud and clear,” Graves told the lawmakers before an audience of hundreds crammed into the pews of the Mount Hermon African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The new approach is subtle, but it is significant to African American lawmakers who have been pressing for the change since early spring. One proposal would extend aid to communities with long-standing poverty problems. Another would help the long-term unemployed.
Both ideas would help mostly minorities, said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. In steering clear of the overt race label, he added, “it’s not as in-your-face.”
“They are paying closer attention to what’s going on in the urban core of the major cities,” Cleaver said.
Several black lawmakers said they think the White House is considering additional targeted steps to boost urban communities as part of the jobs package the president plans to release shortly after Labor Day.
And the White House announced this week that Obama will pay a Labor Day visit to Detroit, a hard-hit city where a town hall meeting held by the black caucus drew headlines last week when Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) decried the black jobless rate as “unconscionable” and blasted the president for his recent Midwestern bus tour that focused on rural white communities.
The White House had also intended a major address for Sunday at the now-postponed dedication of the new memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — at which the president could speak in personal terms about the continuing economic challenges black Americans face.
The sharper White House focus on the needs of black Americans is indicative of a larger political problem facing Obama as he wages a reelection fight amid a stubbornly bad economy and sliding job-approval ratings.
Black unemployment, which began rising toward the end of President George W. Bush’s term and was 11.5 percent when Obama was elected, now stands at 15.9 percent. The overall national rate is 9.1 percent. Moreover, black communities have been hit hard by the housing crisis, and a recent Pew study found that the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households.
African Americans continue to give Obama high approval ratings — about 90 percent in most surveys. But a July Washington Post-ABC News poll shows how the economy complicates Obama’s ability to get the high black turnout he needs to win reelection — with the number of African Americans who say they think his actions have helped the economy dropping from 77 percent in October to a little more than half this summer.
“The White House has got to be seeing this, too,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). “These realizations have begun to set in.” Clyburn noted what he said was a recent example of stepped-up administration efforts to reach minorities: a Tuesday visit to his district by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who talked to black small-business owners seeking government contracts.
Some Republicans have begun pointing to the economic strain on blacks, maybe hoping to dampen voter excitement about Obama next year. Campaign staff members for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, for instance, attended the Congressional Black Caucus’s jobs fair Tuesday in Miami, seeking to interview people who are unemployed. And former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), appearing Wednesday with Fox News host Sean Hannity, lamented the “level of personal pain, family pain” associated with black unemployment and noted that “virtually every African American church in this country has members who are now unemployed.”
The Obama campaign’s focus on black turnout was clear Thursday, as officials announced a new program called Project Vote, designed to target African Americans and other core constituencies for voter registration and outreach. The effort will be led in part by Michael Blake, who until recently directed black outreach at the White House.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a top outside adviser to the White House on black community concerns, said that political success in 2012 will require more policy specifics.
“There is going to have to be a different and more direct approach,” he said. “The direct approach has to say, ‘Here’s our jobs plan, here’s the plan to get it done and here’s the enemies against it.’ ”
Some administration efforts have been underway for several months. A White House Web page devoted to African American issues was introduced this spring, and staff members are working on a glossy booklet that will detail ways that administration policies have benefited blacks.
One program announced this summer would help Detroit make better use of federal grant money, officials said. White House officials also began a series of “urban entrepreneurship forums” in major cities, while they argue that measures such as the nation’s new health-care law help many minorities.
“They may not be targeted per se at the African American community, but they certainly have a positive impact in the African American community,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior Obama adviser.
Still, pressure has been building on the White House over the past two weeks as the black caucus has used a series of town hall meetings and job fairs in major cities to highlight African American unemployment and question the Obama agenda.
At the Miami church Monday, Waters and other lawmakers expressed frustration about what they said was a reluctance by the first black president and his aides to speak directly about the pain African Americans are feeling.
When Graves said that “certain communities have been hit harder than other communities,” Waters cut him off.
“Let me hear you say ‘black,’ ” she said sternly. As the crowd cheered, Graves responded quietly: “Black, African American, Latino, these communities have been hard hit.”
Bishop Victor Curry, head of the Miami-Dade NAACP, drew thunderous applause when he described black economic struggles in the age of Obama as the “300-pound elephant in the room.”
“We don’t want to come across as being critical of the president,” Curry said. “But if the president can count on 90 percent of the African American vote, then the African American community should expect something from the man who’s getting 90 percent of their support.”
There was caution in the room, however. Even the sharpest critics expressed a desire to stand by Obama in his reelection effort. And some argued that a black president simply cannot afford to be seen helping his own.
“If he comes and speaks out for black people in the middle of this, he will lose his reelection, and you know it,” said Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.). “He has to temper this in such a manner so we can get him reelected, and once he’s a lame-duck president, I think we’ll see lots of changes and lots of movement toward the black community.”