A top aide to President Obama got a public grilling Monday night from black lawmakers and civil rights leaders, who vented frustration at a jobs forum here that the administration was not doing more to directly help distressed black communities.
Tensions rose when Don Graves, executive director of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, told a lively crowd of hundreds in a black church sanctuary that Obama was “focused on every community across the country.”
When he added that “certain communities have been hit harder than other communities,” one lawmaker pressed him for specificity.
“Let me hear you say ‘black,'” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).
As the crowd erupted in cheers, Graves responded quietly: “Black, African-American, Latino, these communities have been hard hit.”
Obama and his aides say all Americans including blacks benefit from broad-based policies. But many black lawmakers and civil rights leaders want direct, targeted aid–and some worry that Obama’s pursuit of white independent voters might make him reluctant to advocate for blacks.
Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif..) described the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach as “a bunch of bull.”
Later, she turned to Graves and asked if he would be willing to take the dozens of pieces of jobs-related legislation that have been authored by caucus members to the White House so the president might consider using executive authority to enact them.
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), whose Miami-area district includes some of South Florida’s poorest neighborhoods, cautioned the crowd that Obama cannot afford to be the advocate many want him to be.
“If he comes and speaks out for black people in the middle of this, he will lose his reelection, and you know it,” she said.
The lawmakers turned much of their fire on the tea party movement, accusing Republicans of conspiring to block Obama’s agenda to ensure his defeat next year–and lamenting that the president did not call out his foes more directly.
When Graves at one point referred generically to the “folks” opposing the president, Waters challenged him to speak more forcefully.
“Say ‘tea party,'” she said. “Say it.”
He did, reluctantly.