One year, ten months… President Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus have not had a meeting in 675 days as of March 18 — two months short of two years. The last meeting between the President and the Black Caucus was May 12, 2011 at the White House.
No group meeting between the Caucus and the President is likely to take place until late April. President Obama is headed to Israel this week and Congress will be in recess for two weeks for Easter until April 9. The President met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on January 25, the week after that meeting, Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-OH) sent a letter to the President requesting the President meet with the Black Caucus.
During their last meeting with the President the dominant subject was jobs. Black unemployment was 16.2% in May of 2011 and three months later hit a 28 year high of 16.7%. The Labor Department reported the Black unemployment rate at 13.8% for March 2013 as the overall rate improved to 7.7%. From 1996 to January 2009, Black unemployment was never above 12.7%.
In the midst of a charm offensive with Congress to confront what a March 12, New York Times editorial described as the President’s, “well-earned reputation for aloofness,” President Obama met members of both parties in the Senate and House last week. The President also met with Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Chris VanHollen (D-MD) in the Oval Office. Additionally, the President called Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to set up a dinner with ten Republican Senators at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington ten days ago.
On February 22, President Obama met with Black leaders including NAACP President Ben Jealous and Joint Center for Policy Studies CEO Ralph Everett. According to those who were in the hour long meeting, the focus was policies related to the President’s agenda items as stated in his State of the Union. Chairwoman Fudge and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) were both invited to that meeting but it was held on a week when the House was out of session and neither could attend.
Where do Black lawmakers and the specific issues facing their constituents fit on President’s schedule? In an interview Friday on MSNBC, Andrea Mitchell asked CBC Chair Fudge if she’d talked with the President over a March 11 letter Fudge sent on the issue of African Americans in the President’s cabinet. “I have not talked with the President but I have talked to the White House,” Fudge answered.
“Has the President paid enough attention to his base? Has he met with the Black Caucus enough,” Mitchell, the anchor of MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports, also asked Fudge. “He has not met with the Black Caucus recently, we are in the process of scheduling a meeting,” Fudge answered.
In general terms, any member of the House or Senate could argue that the President is not exactly hyper-connected to members of Congress. But for Black members serving during the tenure of the first Black President in history, the general lack of communication is particularly ironic.
“I haven’t had a substantive conversation with the President since he’s been in office,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) last week as she walked to her office on Capitol Hill. Waters is the most senior African American female in Congress and the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee. Discrimination regarding loans, Black-owned banks and predatory lending have been a focus for Waters and the eight other members of the Committee.
When asked what she would tell the President if she had 30 minutes with him, Waters said, “I would continue to talk about the need for substantive loan modifications and improving the settlements that have been made to ensure that constituents who are the victims of fraud … are compensated fairly,” Waters said. Waters added language to create an Office of Minority and Women Inclusion to the Dodd-Frank legislation.
Due in large part to the foreclosure crisis, wealth loss in the Black community has been at a crisis level for the last few years. The issue is perhaps the number one problem facing African Americans. The wealth gap in America between blacks and whites is at its largest point in over two decades. In an article last month in The American Prospect, Jamelle Bouie wrote that the wealth gap between black and white in America is the worst in 25 years. “The total wealth gap between white and African-American families has nearly tripled,” Bouie wrote.
At a critical time for African Americans, communication between the first African American President and their federal representatives is a critical issue. Record poverty in the U.S., along with record incarceration and a Black male high school dropout rate at crisis level are major issues that continue to adversely effect the Black community but specific attention, whether by conversation or policy is elusive.
“I think that many of my colleagues are uncomfortable with who it is the President listens to and whether or not he hears our voices or not,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) who was early to endorse and support President Obama for the White House and has been a consistent defender.
“I think the President has done a heck of a lot in the face of consistent opposition by Republicans… I don’t think anyone can make the case that Black folks have not benefitted from what has been done for the whole. Has there been a laser-like focus on issues paticular to African Americans? No we have not seen that,” Johnson added. “But there are still three plus years to go in this Administration,” he added optimistically.
Reps. Corrine Brown (D-FL) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) expressed a better relationship with the President than most in the Caucus. Brown mentioned that she spoke to the President for thirty minutes during a campaign stop in Florida last year and that the conversation covered several issues. Cummings is said to have the President’s direct number and quickly answered “very good” when asked how the relationship was in general. Reps. Keith Ellison (D-WI) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) asked the President a question during last week’s Democratic Caucus meeting.
Brown also pointed out that jobs is always the top issue with constituents. “Everytime I go home people talk about jobs. That’s all they talk to me about. Jobs, jobs jobs,” said Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL) on the subject of what her constituents are focused on in Florida. Though the President has not yet released his annual budget for FY2014, the CBC’s alternative budget proposal $500 billion on jobs — double the amount proposed by House Democrats.
Former Black Caucus Chair Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) was also asked what he’d tell the President.
“Number one: I’d ask him if there was anything in the executive branch’s toolbox to enable us to do summer jobs. If there was some kind of Labor Department maneuver. Number two, I would tell him that this earmark ban was the worst thing that ever happen for two reasons. One, it removes one of the methods by which members are disciplined and two, the American people are very intelligent — they don’t believe that earmarks are money beyond the budget. Most of the urban core around the country — most of the money that is spent in those communities has been earmarks. Including money for HBCUs.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) whose state of California is suffering from particularly high unemployment, said she’d tell the President it’s,”very important to target resources into areas of high unemployment especially the Black and Latino communities where you see twice the national average of unemployment. Investments in communities of color and communities that are poor need to be a top priority — targeting resources.”
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) expressed something similar when asked what she’d speak to the President about. “I would tell him that what this county needs to be focused on is jobs and the deficit is jobs. I would tell him he needs to look at creating new land grant institutions that are focused on technology, engineering and grants to train the people who have lost their jobs — and especially minority children in the urban core — to be ready for the jobs of the future,” Wilson said.
Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) pointed out that neuroscience funding and research, a subject that many might assume is not specific to African Americans, is a vital issue for the community because of health disparities and diseases that strike African Americans disproportionately. Fattah spoke generally on the topic of the President, the Black Caucus and how detailed policy work gets done.
“African Americans are disproportionately suffering from these diseases. Getting to the root of these problems is very important,” Fattah, who is one of the most powerful members of the Black Caucus as a member of House Appropriations, pointed out. Rep. Al Green (D-TX) was quick to make a similar point saying that the President’s work on health care reform alone was a major policy moment for African Americans, a sentiment many Black Caucus members agree with. “I would compliment him on the good job that he’s done. The Affordable Care Act, Lilly Ledbetter…,” Green answered when asked what he would tell the President in a private meeting.
“In our business just like in any other business, formality is one thing. The informal relationships matter more. It’s not just in politics between the President and the CBC. This happens all through life in every strain of activity so there’s nothing different here. Obviously the President is the President but Valerie Jarrett is very important. Rob Nabors, who use to work with me on Appropriations, is the Deputy Chief of Staff to the President — he is vitally important,” Fattah pointed out. The CBC met with White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett on February 6.
The issue of Republican obstruction was not a forgotten issue regarding what can get done whether the CBC meets with the President or not..
“I’ve been here 20 years and I have not seen anything like the House Republicans and the Tea Party. It’s a disservice to the people that they represent and the people we represent and the entire country… this has never happened before,” added Rep. Brown.
“Talking is a social thing. I want to talk to people that can affect the issues like the Education Secretary and Health Secretary — and I love the Transportation Secretary. The key is to get the work done… I’ll work with anybody to get it done,” Brown added as she spoke on the importance of meeting with others in the Administration besides the President.
“If we are not at the table and no one is speaking for our interests we get left out of the process,” Rep. Fudge told Mitchell during their Friday interview. “But the man sitting at the head of the table is the first African American President,” Mitchell pointed out.
“That is correct, but you also have to understand that the President is there to represent all of the people and he can’t always be in a position to carve out things for African Americans, we need someone pushing from our perspective to make sure that our issues are on the table,” Fudge answered.