Obama reaches out to African Americans
By Krissah Thompson
President Obama is pushing back this week against criticism that he has not been concerned enough about the disproportionate impact of the economic recession on African Americans. In interviews this week with media outlets targeted at the black community, he defended both his record and his connection to the community against accusations that he is taking black voters for granted.
Recently members of the Congressional Black Caucus have said his administration and Congressional leaders are not doing enough to target aid to the black community, which has higher levels of unemployment than others. Nationally, unemployment stands at 10 percent, but 15.6 percent of blacks are jobless.
Obama said he is doing what he can, and on Monday told April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks that "this notion, somehow, that because there wasn't a transformation overnight that we've been neglectful is just simply, factually not accurate."
In a Tuesday phone interview with syndicated radio host Tom Joyner, Obama added: "One of the things about being part of the African American community is that no matter how well you do, you know there's somebody in your family that's still hurting because we're not that far away from the neighborhood. And people need to know that I carry their stories with me whenever I come into the Oval Office."
Black Caucus members have been the source of much of the criticism targeted at Obama. Earlier this month, ten members held a dramatic boycott of a House Finance Committee to bring attention to the disproportionately high levels of unemployment among black workers, which in some of their districts has soared beyond 20 percent.
"We're out of the box, we're full speed ahead and we are not going to sit back and watch our communities suffer in silence," Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who led the boycott, said in an interview this week with the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a federation of black community newspapers. "We have cooperated with the leadership. We have cooperated with the administration. We have supported the bailout and now we're saying, 'What do we get for all of this cooperation? What are we delivering to our communities?' And the answer is little or nothing."
Obama mounted a defense against that notion, citing aid from the economic stimulus bill that saved the jobs of teachers, firefighters and police officers. "The only thing I cannot do is, by law, I cannot pass laws that say 'I'm just helping black folks.' I'm the president of the entire United States," Obama told Ryan in the Oval Office interview. "What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That in turn is going to help lift up the African American community."
Obama told Joyner that the health care bill the Senate is expected to pass this week will help the one in five black people who don't have health insurance. And he closed his interview with the radio host by saying: "I think the main message that I've got for the African American community as we go into this next year is that this has been a hard one. It's been a tough one. But Michelle and I are so blessed by the support that we receive, and everywhere we go, people come up to us and say, 'We're praying for you, thinking about you and rooting for you.' I just want everybody to know that goes both ways, and I'm praying for all your listeners and thinking about all your listeners, and we're rooting for you. And that's not just Michelle and me -- that's Malia and Sasha, the first grandmother."
An edited version of the Obama's conversation with Joyner follows. The full transcript can be read on BlackAmericaWeb.
Joyner: What do you have to say to the struggling people this Christmas?
Obama: Well, I think the main message I have is a) I know you're hurting. I get letters from people across the country everyday that I read, and you know, the stories are heartbreaking. Folks are worried about losing their homes. They've lost their jobs. They're trying to figure out how they can still pay for their kids' college education. They've been sending out resumes, and nothing's happening. They've lost their health care. The main message I have for them is help is on the way. I know it's not coming as quick for some as we would like, but our first job this year was to make sure that the economy just didn't collapse because then it would have been even worse. We could have had an unemployment rate that is double what it is right now. We've stabilized the economy and it's starting to grow again.
By the way, people need to understand that one out of every five African-Americans do not have health care. Nobody stands to gain more from this health care bill passing - 30 million people who are going to get health care from this insurance deal. It's going to be disproportionately people who are of low-income. They work every day, but they're not getting health care, so that's going to be in place. But then next year, we've also got to focus on things like the education reforms that we've been initiating. Additional child care dollars. Setting up green jobs so that we can train some of those young men on the street to weatherize homes and put up insulation, put in new windows. That saves people on their energy bills, but also starts refurbishing and revitalizing communities that have been neglected too long. So there's some long term projects to revitalize communities that are going to be in place next year, and I'm confident that 2010 is going to be better than 2009. And I think 2011 is going to be better than 2010.
We just want to keep making steady progress for a more just and equal society, and that may not be complete consolation for folks who are really struggling right now. Just know that Michelle and I are thinking about them every day. As I said to one interviewer the other day, it's not as if Michelle and I don't have relatives who are going though this stuff and are unemployed. One of the things about being part of the African American community is that no matter how well you do, you know there's somebody in your family that's still hurting because we're not that far away from the neighborhood. And people need to know that I carry their stories with me whenever I come into the Oval Office.
Joyner: You told us when we last talked, and it's been about a year, that it was going to be tough, and it was going to be a tough job ahead. You warned us about it when we talked to you. So what's been the toughest part for the first year as the first African-American president?
Obama: You know the truth is that I probably had more crises on my desk than any president since FDR, and that's just subjectively speaking. You think about two wars, the economic crisis, the banking crisis, swine flu, we just had a lot of stuff coming at us quickly. I think we have managed it well, but the thing that I think is the toughest is, number-one, that the job growth is not as quick as we'd like. We've got the economy growing, but companies are not hiring back yet, and so we're doing everything we can to try to push companies now that they're making a profit again to start hiring some of those folks who were laid off so that they can further support the economy.
Joyner: So, we're not out of the woods. Now, at the Christmas party there at the White House, you couldn't see (Bill) O'Reilly and the other Fox news people at the party all frowned up, and they were eating up all the shrimp and the ham. Drinking all the liquor. I mean, the people that bad mouth you were there at your party. How hard is it to deal with that - or does it make you stronger and more determined?
Obama: Well, look, first of all, they all got their pictures taken with me.
Joyner: I know!
Obama: So, I think that's part of the Christmas spirit, and Michelle and I try to kill them with kindness. Michelle starts hugging all of them.
Joyner: Ha, ha - I saw that.
Obama: 'Oh, it's great to see you!' And you know, look, the thing about a lot that goes on in cable news - and you know this better than anybody Tom - I mean, these guys fundamentally are entertainers. They are often times not thinking from a journalistic perspective; they are thinking, 'How can we generate some controversy to boost our ratings?' You know, the difference between you and them is you're explicit about the fact that you're entertaining people, and some of the stuff they try to pass off as news. My hope is that with the health care debate winding down, we get that done. The people, everybody takes a deep breath and remembers that everybody's an American. I've got my birth certificate to prove it. We are all just trying to do what's best for the country. We're gonna have our differences, but we don't have to attack each other's motives which I think has become a habit in Washington. You know you know me pretty well, Tom, and I'm always an optimist. I don't hold grudges, and I'm just interested in getting the job done.
Web Politics Editor
December 22, 2009; 12:51 PM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency
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