President Barack Obama disregarded a record snowstorm in D.C. Wednesday and hosted a one-hour conference at the White House with three prominent civil rights leaders who were invited to the Oval Office for the first time since Obama took office.
With the black unemployment rate soaring to an unprecedented 16.4 percent, Obama made time to listen to National Urban League President Marc Morial, NAACP President Ben Jealous and Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network – all of whom have talked passionately about the nation’s black jobless rate and the toll its taken on black communities across the country.
Obama’s meeting with the black leaders – arranged during Black History Month – could signal Obama’s willingness to take advice from some of his black supporters who would like the president to show more public concern for African-American citizens during times of economic hardships.
More than eight million jobs have been lost during a two-year recession, and black Americans were hardest hit. For young black men, times are particularly tough: Black men between 16 and 24 years old are coping with a staggering 34.5 percent unemployment rate. The Congressional Black Caucus sent Obama a letter last year criticizing him for not speaking out directly about the problem.
But after Wednesday’s meeting with Obama, Sharpton acknowledged there are “specific needs” that should be addressed in the African-American community, but he also seemed to put mainstream America at ease saying Obama shouldn’t be expected to create jobs programs exclusively for black Americans.
“We’re not looking for a race-based program,” Sharpton told POLITICO. “We’re looking to make sure everyone is involved. … We don’t expect him to be the black president. We expect him to be the American president of everyone, including blacks.”
Sharpton’s comments worked well with the White House handbook on media and strategy. Obama doesn’t like talking about race publicly – and he really doesn’t have to if others are willing to do it for him.
Wednesday’s meeting with Morial, Jealous and Sharpton indicated to black Americans – and some of Obama’s white constituents – that the president is willing to embrace his civil rights upbringing and sit down with black activists who some conservatives may consider too radical for Oval Office invitations.
The meeting could also silence chatter among some blacks who say Obama relies too heavily on inner-circle advice from Harvard-trained African-American friends who are out of touch with real life issues in the black community.
It’s no secret that Obama prefers his catch phrase “lift all boats” when talking about race – meaning when all of America prospers, black Americans will benefit, too. But some of Obama’s black supporters want to hear more from Obama, and they wonder privately if the president will begin to speak out more aggressively about issues of concern to African-Americans during his second year in office.
The truth is Obama may never speak out on behalf of African-American citizens as often as some black activists would like, but his policies and immediate actions could help millions of black people during his tenure as president.
On Thursday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) plans to ask Obama to declare a national emergency to help Washington recover from a record blizzard, an official act that would bring some relief to thousands of black snow-trapped D.C. residents who voted for Obama hoping that he’d raise their sinking boats.