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Obama vs the Congressional Black Caucus?

President Obama's relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus has been strained of late. Photo by Hamil R. Harris.

President Obama's relationship with members of the Congressional Black Caucus is being tested over a series of high-profile incidents, the latest of which is the ethics investigation into New York Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel.

On Friday, Obama told CBS News that he believed it was time for Rangel to end his carer "with dignity", adding: "I think Charlie Rangel served a very long time and served his constituents very well, but these allegations are very troubling."

A Politico story quoted a person close to Rangel saying that the congressman "doesn't give a damn about what the president thinks about this." And New York Gov. David Paterson, who is black and whose father came up in New York politics with Rangel, seemed to offer a thinly veiled criticism of Obama in a radio interview over the weekend.

Paterson said he was "especially surprised when people from our own community" jump to conclusions before all the facts have been aired "because we've been the greatest victim of it for centuries." (Worth noting: The White House discouraged Paterson from a reelection bid last year.)

According to sources familiar with the CBC, Obama's comments were seen as an unnecessary piling-on of Rangel who is facing allegations that he broke 13 House rules and the prospect of a trial this fall. (Another member of the CBC -- Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) -- will also face a congressional trial on ethics allegations this fall.)

"The CBC has a very protective attitude toward CBC members who face ethics troubles," said Alabama Democratic Rep. Artur Davis, who is black. Davis added that several CBC members were unhappy with comments he made about Rangel recently. Some CBC members believe the organization "should observe some code of silence" when it comes to ethics charges against their membership, Davis said.

While the Rangel back-and-forth dominated the headlines over the weekend, it is only the latest example of the CBC and the Obama Administration not seeing entirely eye to eye of late.

To wit:

* CBC members made no secret of their unhappiness with the firing (and attempted re-hiring) of Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod over allegedly racist remarks that, upon further inspection, appeared anything but. In an interview with Essence magazine, CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said the Obama Administration "didn't wait like we did, didn't do their due diligence, and reacted to an unfortunate right-wing attack on a great woman."

* Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings (D) told the St. Petersburg Times that he was "a little bit put out by the mixed signals that are coming from the White House" regarding the Senate candidacy of Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.). Hastings added that how aggressive Obama is on behalf of Meek, who faces an Aug. 24 primary fight against billionaire Jeff Greene, could affect how fired up the African American base in Florida will be for the president come 2012. Meek, for his part, told the Fix today that he was "not in any way disappointed by what the president has done and what will he do." Meek is scheduled to join Obama at an Aug. 18 event in Miami.

* Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), a former CBC chairman, told the New York Times over the weekend that "much of the House is in a wait-and-see mode to see how helpful the president will be," adding. "He has to come into these districts with the same gusto and the same sense of hope that he came into the election with."

Sources familiar with the relationship between Obama and the CBC point to three major causes of tension: a generational divide, a lack of relationships and pure politics.

Taking the generation factor first, there is clearly a divide even within the CBC between older African American politicians who tended to put race front and center in their campaigns and a younger group -- of which Davis, Obama, Meek and former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Calif.) are a part -- that tends to de-emphasize race in the context of their campaigns.

(Don't forget that Obama directly challenged the African American political chain of command when he ran and lost -- badly -- to Rep. Bobby Rush in a 2000 Democratic primary for Illinois' 1st district.)

Second, much of politics is about relationships, and the simple fact is that Obama does not have long ties with many of the CBC members outside of the Illinois delegation, according to a source familiar with the caucus. Obama's rapid rise through the political ranks made such relationships difficult, as he spent only a few years in the Senate before making his presidential bid.

As important, said the source, is that no senior Obama staffer hails from the office of a CBC member or carries the sort of connections to the group that might breed trust between the two sides.

Finally, the 2008 presidential primary fight between Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton still plays a role in how the president is perceived, sources suggested. Rangel and Hastings were well-known supporters of Clinton during the primary race, and, according to sources close to the group, there are lingering memories at work in the current relationship.

What's less clear than the "why" behind the tensions between Obama and the CBC is the "what now?".

One party strategist familiar with the CBC painted the following doomsday scenario:

"You have a bunch of 'Front Liners and Blue Dogs -- predominantly white members -- calling for Rangel and Waters to step down, and the CBC digs in and defends them and goes after [Obama] and the party for not adequately defending them. This causes big drop in enthusiasm among African Americans for Democrats (coupled with bitterness with the Sherrod incident), and they stay home."

It's not clear, however, whether dissatisfaction toward Obama within the CBC means broader dissatisfaction within the black community. Each member has a political base, but there are real questions in the minds of some party strategists whether the collected political power of the CBC can sway black voters nationwide in any meaningful way.

Hoping to counter any dissatisfaction, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine and White House political director Patrick Gaspard visited with the CBC twice last month -- including last week -- to brief the caucus on plans relating to the 2010 midterms.

The White House hopes such outreach will mitigate any ill will regarding Rangel and Waters that may be directed its way in the coming months. The question is whether the CBC agrees.

By Chris Cillizza  |  August 2, 2010; 4:44 PM ET
Categories:  White House  
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