Thursday, October 22, 2009

Obama's most loyal supporters are a problem

By DeWayne Wickham

Barack Obama has a simmering race problem.

The nation's first black president, who relied heavily on black voters to reach the Oval Office, is coming under increased criticism from blacks who think he's not doing enough to address their concerns.

So far, this talk hasn't gotten much national media attention. Obama's approval rating among blacks is still in the political stratosphere, and many of his black supporters have a low tolerance for blacks who publicly question the president's decision-making, even when they agree with the criticisms.

But the grousing continues.

Recently, some black activists formed a group to monitor how Obama deals with black issues. Called the Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission, the panel is headed by Julianne Malveaux, an economist and president of Bennett College for Women, and Ronald Walters, director of the University of Maryland's African American Leadership Center.

Panel leader Julianne Malveaux was asked during a recent interview in Essence magazine whether she should be more patient before taking the president to task.

"He's our brother ... but we're not his only constituency," the long-time Democratic activist responded. "He's not the president of black America. We have to make him do right. He's not going to do right just 'cuz. We've got to make him."

That's apparently what Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, tried to do when he broke his silence over the slow pace of Obama's efforts to fill about 90 vacancies on federal appeals and district courts. Henderson complained the president is kowtowing too much to congressional Republicans, who see his outreach as a weakness.

"I commend the president's effort to change the tone in Washington," Henderson told The Washington Post earlier this month. "I recognize that he is extending an olive branch to Republicans ... but so far, his efforts at reconciliation have been met with partisan hostility."

That public breach of the black community's "speak no ill of Obama" rule followed a festering rift over the Obama administration's decision to exclude from his budget $85 million for black college aid that was in the last two budgets of Republican President George W. Bush.

Outrage among supporters of the nation's 105 historically black higher-education institutions has been an open secret. Tom Joyner, whose syndicated radio talk show airs on more than 110 stations across the nation, wrote the president during the summer asking him to restore the funds.

So far, that hasn't happened. White House officials say the money was part of a one-time, two-year grant to black colleges. Critics said Obama should have continued the grant, which will be hard to replace for many financially strapped black schools.

"It suggests that HBCUs are not a priority," Lezli Baskerville, who heads the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, a lobbying group for black colleges, told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

This growing discontent among black activists is compounded by political fissures dividing Obama and some black politicians.

Obama tried mightily to persuade former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to endorse Creigh Deeds, a fellow Democrat and the party's candidate for governor in Virginia's Nov. 3 election. But Wilder, the state's first black governor, recently announced he'll remain neutral. His refusal to support Deeds in the close race could cost Democrats the election.

In New York, black politicians reacted angrily to Obama's push to get black Gov. David Paterson to drop his bid for re-election and clear the way for a bid by the state's white attorney general.

Obama needs to get a handle on his race problem. Otherwise, he could be drawn into a very public feud with members of his most loyal constituency.

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