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Amid criticism, Obama reaches out to blacks

Rejects assertions that US isn’t doing enough to help

‘I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping black folks. I’m the president of the entire United States,’ President Obama said. ‘I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping black folks. I’m the president of the entire United States,’ President Obama said.
By Joseph Williams
Globe Staff / December 26, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Stung by accusations from some African-Americans that he has not done enough for urban communities, President Obama has embarked on an effort to soothe a constituency once counted as his fiercest source of support.

In a series of interviews this week with media outlets aimed at African-Americans, Obama said he understands pent-up frustrations about foreclosures, bank bailouts, and festering social issues, while he also challenged assertions that he has given short shrift to cities.

Steps he has taken to improve education, health care, and urban economies, the president said, will improve the day-to-day lives of all Americans, including blacks and other minorities.

“This notion somehow that, because there wasn’t a transformation overnight, that we’ve been neglectful is simply factually not accurate,’’ Obama said in an interview with the American Urban Radio Networks on Monday.

“I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping black folks. I’m the president of the entire United States,’’ he said. “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.’’

Observers and political analysts say Obama’s courting of black media, including an interview with Oprah Winfrey recorded during the White House Christmas party and broadcast during prime time last week, is meant to repair the complex relationship between the first black president and some of his African-American critics - including members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

In recent weeks, the caucus has pushed the president and his top aides to do more to specifically help its constituents. The White House, caucus members argue, must specifically address the African-American jobless rate, which at 15.6 percent is more than 5 percentage points higher than the national average.

Barbara Lee, a House Democrat from Texas and president of the caucus, said she wants Obama to succeed, but said the caucus will treat him no differently than his predecessors, acting as his conscience for urban communities.

“That’s where the problems are the greatest, and let’s make sure we leave no one behind,’’ she said.

Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and caucus member, said both the president and the caucus have a difficult job ahead of them. The caucus must figure out how to fight for its causes while recognizing race is a sensitive issue for Obama - one that could turn off the moderate white voters he needs to stay in office.

“I would hate to see Obama get hit harder than any other president because he hasn’t been able to do more than other presidents,’’ Ellison said. “But we go to our districts, people are calling us, people are saying they can’t find work. We can’t sit by and say nothing because of who he is. So we are in the position of raising the issue without holding him to a double standard. It [isn’t] easy.’’

The 43-member caucus, dominated by liberal Democrats, supported Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton during last year’s Democratic primary, and members were elated when Obama was elected to the White House. But as Obama’s first year progressed, members said they began to worry that the president was ignoring needs in the black community - an allegation the White House strongly denies.

Representative John Conyers of Michigan, a veteran caucus member and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has been particularly vocal, declaring that it was “hard to reconcile’’ how Obama seemed to lose his compassion in the White House.

The tensions made headlines early in December, when 10 caucus members boycotted a House Financial Services Committee vote on a financial regulation overhaul bill important to the administration.

Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat and senior member of the black caucus, helped lead the walkout after leaving a White House meeting dissatisfied.

“We said over and over again: ‘This is not an attack on this president; we’re not trying to undermine his presidency,’ ’’ said Waters, whose district includes low-income minority neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The boycott, she said, was “to help educate some of the people in his administration’’ that urban minority communities desperately need help.

Ron Walters, a top adviser to Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns who is now a political science professor at the University of Maryland, said the White House made a mistake by sending Waters away unhappy.

“Either the president and his people don’t get it, or they’ve thrown up this wall around him to protect him,’’ Walters said.

White House officials, however, cite several of Obama’s initiatives - including billions of dollars in aid to cities, home foreclosure relief for the unemployed, and creation of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, charged with revamping American cities. They said large chunks of the $787 billion economic stimulus package benefited urban areas by paying for teachers and police officers and creating jobs repairing crumbling infrastructure.

“We are not in disagreement with the CBC on any part of their agenda,’’ said Mona Sutphen, a senior White House domestic policy adviser. “Is there more to be done? Absolutely. But it took us a long time to get into this mess, and it’s going to take a while to get out of this mess.’’

But Walters said the Urban Affairs office in particular exemplifies the friction between Obama and black lawmakers. Its director, Adolfo Carrion, has taken too long to present a plan for urban America, Walters said, despite having spent months touring cities and meeting with all major federal departments.

“I haven’t seen a report on what the ‘listening tour’ found out,’’ Walters said. “What have they done? What is going on? What are these meetings about?’’

Carrion said his office is operating on schedule, and said Obama will showcase several of its initiatives in his first State of the Union address.

“If we could wave a magic wand and hurry things up we certainly would do that,’’ said Carrion.

Though Obama’s job approval rating among black voters is above 90 percent compared with just north of 50 percent overall, he is defending himself through media aimed at African-Americans - including an on-air interview with syndicated radio host Tom Joyner, the prime-time special with Winfrey, and a White House round-table with African-American journalists.

“I’m optimistic about the long-term future of the African-American community, but it’s going to take work,’’ the president said in the Urban Radio Networks interview. “It was never going to be done just because we elected me.’’

Ellison agreed, acknowledging that Obama is managing two wars and a crippled economy in the process. But he said he and the caucus would continue to “advocate aggressively’’ for their constituencies.

“But here’s what [Obama] can do: He can say, ‘Look, if American farmers were in deep trouble, America would respond. If American veterans were finding themselves overwhelmingly among the homeless, we would respond,’ ’’ Ellison said.

Poor urban minorities, Ellison said, “are our people. Why would we say we can do nothing for them?’’