Thursday, December 3, 2009

Black Caucus clashes with Obama

By DeWayne Wickham

This is a warning shot Barack Obama should not ignore.

Angered by a laundry list of perceived slights, 10 members of the Congressional Black Caucus who also sit on the House Financial Services Committee boycotted a vote Wednesday on a financial regulation reform bill the Obama administration wants Congress to pass.

While the legislation cleared the committee on a 31-27 vote, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., made it clear that the 43 members of the black caucus — all Democrats — might join with Republicans to block other bills the White House is pushing if their concerns aren’t addressed.

I knew it would come to this.

Since Obama took office in January, his staff has tried mightily to keep him from being perceived as "the black president" — an effort that at times has made Obama seem indifferent to the concerns of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency.

The president didn’t meet with the black caucus until five weeks after moving into the Oval Office. That one-hour session came after he’d already met with Senate Republicans and with members of the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative House Democrats.

At their February meeting with Obama, black caucus members voiced their concern over the disparate impact unemployment was having on blacks during the economic recession. Back then, the black unemployment rate was 13.4 percent compared with a national unemployment rate of 8.1 percent.

Since then, unemployment has gotten worse, and blacks and Hispanics continue to be disproportionately jobless, especially as manufacturing and construction industries falter.

A day after caucus members boycotted the Financial Services Committee vote, the Obama administration held a White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth. The agenda did not include a discussion of unemployment’s disproportionate impact on blacks.

In an interview Thursday with USA TODAY, Obama rejected the idea of a targeted response to the problems that afflict blacks when he said: "I will tell you that I think the most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is get the economy going again and get people hiring again."

But that rising-tide-lifts-all-boats answer hasn’t sat well with black caucus members as unemployment among black men (17.1 percent in October) approaches a level not seen since the Great Depression.

The racial divide that Obama successfully straddled in winning the presidency now threatens to break apart the coalition that hoisted him into office. While polls show his biggest loss of support has occurred among independent voters, a growing frustration among blacks may yet become Obama’s downfall.

Obama must be as aggressive in working to reduce black unemployment as he was in giving billions in federal stimulus aid to collapsing financial institutions. A general approach to putting Americans back to work won’t close the yawning gap between black and white joblessness.

Of course, Obama isn’t the president of black America, he’s the president of all Americans, some of his most misguided supporters like to say. What they don’t seem to realize is that blacks are Americans, too, and their problems shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

The issues that black caucus members are raising with Obama deserve to be treated seriously. Not because Obama also is black. And not simply because blacks voted in historic numbers for him, though in politics there’s something to be said for letting the victors divide the spoils.

No, the most compelling reason why Obama should heed the warning shot the caucus fired across his bow is because many of the problems they want addressed are among this nation’s most vexing social and economic issues.

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