A Frustrated Caucus Keeps Complaints Quiet

Michael Leahy, Washington Post, March 12, 2010

A year ago, members of the Congressional Black Caucus openly wept at Barack Obama’s inauguration. Slowly, that euphoria has given way to frustration that his administration has not done more for black America. Questions about how to elect him have been replaced by questions about how to prod him.

For many, it is the surprise of a political lifetime that they find themselves wrestling with such quandaries. Alternately puzzled and disgruntled, CBC members say key people in the Obama administration have taken them for granted, in the belief that black members of Congress have no stomach for a fight with the country’s first black president.

“We concluded they were just kind of listening to us and that then they would go back [to their offices] and conclude that we would do nothing,” Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), the vice chairman of the CBC, said of one dispute. “Because they had concluded there’s a black president in the White House and that, to some degree, the Black Caucus, you know, was constrained in expressing its desires. After a while, we said, ‘Hey, we see what’s going on and it’s nothing.’ ”

On Thursday, CBC members participated in a rare one-hour policy meeting with Obama at the White House to discuss their concerns, most notably their disappointment over a jobs bill that they regard as largely a package of tax breaks for employers, noticeably bereft of job-training programs, new infrastructure projects and summer employment opportunities for youth. Such issues are vital to the CBC, many of whose members represent districts with high levels of unemployment.

In interviews with aides and members afterward, Obama was described as receptive to their message, even though he did not make any large-scale commitments. “He said he knew what unemployment looks like in ‘my own neighborhood in Chicago,’ ” recounted Cleaver, who stressed that he was speaking only for himself. “He said he wanted to do things as quickly as possible.”

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Not withstanding Thursday’s kind words, the CBC’s list of complaints with the White House runs from policy to personal. Despite the caucus’s entreaties, the administration has not provided targeted help to black communities and other struggling areas suffering from disproportionately high unemployment, members complain. Many caucus members say they feel largely ignored by key White House advisers. Their communication with Obama himself is minimal to nonexistent.

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Several prominent caucus members have expressed doubts about the interest of administration officials in African American issues, referring to figures including Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and senior adviser David Axelrod. They “haven’t had much involvement with minority communities in their careers, said Rep. Donald M. Payne (N.J.). “They’ve been in suites and boardrooms.”

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For older CBC members, many of whom remember receiving calls from inveterate gabber and advice-seeker Bill Clinton during his presidency, Obama’s more distant style has involved adjustments. Asked whether he has received a call from the president since his inauguration, Payne looked up at his office ceiling and answered slowly: “I can’t remember.”

Members point to the CBC’s four committee chairmanships and 18 subcommittee chairmanships as proof of its clout in the House. But several members said they have few African American contacts with substantial sway in the White House. Some caucus members talk wistfully of the last Democratic administration, where the late commerce secretary Ron Brown could relay CBC concerns to Clinton. “We knew Ron had the president’s ear, and he had status,” Payne said.

White House officials are quick to dispute the notion that there are no African Americans under Obama who have influence. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Mona Sutphen points to Melody Barnes, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett as African Americans with special access to the president.

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Caucus member generally take pains to distinguish their misgivings about some of the president’s top advisers from their personal commitment to Obama. Cleaver views the prospect of Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign as a referendum on the nation’s comfort level with an African American at the helm. “He’s got to succeed,” Cleaver said, emotion putting a catch in his voice.

But Cleaver, Payne and other CBC members acknowledge the paradox they face. How can you express criticism of the administration without eventually confronting the man at the top?

Some say that any public airing of their disagreements with Obama runs the risk of politically damaging the president and ultimately slowing the advancement of other African Americans. “He’s ours. He has to be more careful because he is the first black ever to be president,” said Rep. Diane Watson (Calif.). “. . . I want to help him, to protect him.”

Others argue that the president has spent too much time trying to appease Republicans. “His detractors and political opponents want to try to cast him in the role of being some sort of partisan for African American issues,” Ellison said. “I think what he needs to do is just accept the fact that his detractors would say he couldn’t swim if he walked on water. . . . So why break your neck trying to please them?”

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