Congressional Black Caucus members will passionately — and vocally — support President Barack Obama’s jobs bill and re-election bid despite a recent public dust-up between the country’s first black president and prominent African-American legislators, aides and Members insist.
The recent back-and-forth between the White House and black Members of Congress has brought to the fore a criticism among some in the CBC that Obama has not established a strong relationship with the group.
CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver, who endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the hotly competitive 2008 Democratic primary for president, acknowledged the rift but said members would overcome it.
“Perhaps there needs to be a higher level of intentionality” on the part of the White House in regard to the CBC, the Missouri Democrat said, but he added that the CBC is “irreversibly dedicated” to the president’s re-election.
“I’m more emotionally involved in the re-election because, as African-Americans, we can’t stand the thought of history saying there was a failed presidency with an African-American in the White House,” Cleaver said. “I think that we’re going to have to work on the relationship so that we can be of better value in the president’s re-election.”
Still, the caucus’s agitation with the president illuminates a complex relationship between the close-knit group and a president it counts as an ex-member — and, indeed, a member of the family.
“When they petition the president, for the first time ever, they’re petitioning a former member of the CBC,” said a former caucus staffer who is familiar with its workings. “It’s a new and unique dynamic that’s still playing out.”
The volley played out on the public stage on the CBC’s August jobs tour when its members, particularly Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), criticized the president for not targeting policies directly to African-Americans. Tensions continued after Obama offended members when he told them to “stop whining” and “take off your bedroom slippers” at a Sept. 24 CBC dinner.
Cleaver likened the comments to a “family conversation” that only two groups so closely aligned could have.
But if it’s a family, two House aides familiar with the CBC’s thinking said, some Members think of the president as a “deadbeat dad,” largely absent from the black community but ultimately above reproach.
“It’s hard to say anything because you know how much the kids love daddy,” one aide said.
White House spokesman Kevin Lewis said communication has been constant.
“The White House has consistently had open lines of communication with the Congressional Black Caucus,” he said. “The president met with the CBC several times this year, and he addressed the CBC Foundation dinner.”
Though Obama has strong personal relationship with individual Members in the caucus, the connection to the group as a whole is lacking, the House aides said.
“You would think there would be a firm, real relationship,” a third aide said.
But Obama’s relationship with the caucus has always been complicated and dates back to his 2000 primary race against Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther and an example of the CBC’s old-guard civil rights contingent.
As a Senator from 2004 until 2008, Obama attended some CBC meetings but failed to establish close relationships with many fellow black legislators.
Aides said that disconnect — paired with the CBC’s long-standing ties to the Clintons — resulted in the caucus splitting endorsements during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
Aides conceded there might be misplaced expectations; the CBC expects unique access even though none was ever promised, while Obama assumes there should be unyielding support.
“We both expect some sort of understanding, and we’ve both been disappointed because we didn’t really ever clearly say what that understanding is,” an aide said.
But nonetheless, aides and Members said even the most obvious outreach efforts are lacking. For instance, Members complain that they are not notified if Obama or a member of his Cabinet visits their district.
Even Assistant House Minority Leader James Clyburn, who is a close ally of the president and endorsed him late in the primary over Clinton, said “no one told me” when senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett visited his South Carolina district in August.
“I found out she was coming by seeing it in the newspapers. The coordination is very poor. Those things — they could be much better,” the No. 3 Democrat said. “I’ve heard that complaint pretty often, and I don’t quite understand why.”
Clyburn and other Members chalked the misunderstandings up to a difference in style, with Obama’s disciplined approach butting heads with some pugilistic CBC activists.
“The friction is there because we are trying to accomplish the same goal and maybe doing it in a different way,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who endorsed Obama late in the presidential primary and said he supports him wholeheartedly. “Historically, the CBC would do it in a more confrontational way.”
But Obama has not hired formerly elected black officials as staff who could connect with the CBC, Clyburn added.
“I think it would make a whole lot of difference in terms of developing the kinds of relationships with other elected officials if some black elected officials were there,” he said.
Meanwhile, the CBC has made inroads with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to build its own election chances for next year.
While the caucus and DCCC Chairman Steve Israel locked horns earlier this year when the New York lawmaker said the party would not need the CBC to win back the House, the two parties have since worked together.
Israel appointed Clyburn to serve as chairman of a new Member Advisory Board, and collectively, CBC members have given more than $1 million in dues and hosted more fundraising events than any other group except for the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues, according to a DCCC source.
Other CBC members in leadership roles at the DCCC include Rep. Donna Edwards (Md.), co-chairwoman of the Red to Blue program, and Rep. Karen Bass (Calif.), co-chairwoman of the Women LEAD program.
As they’ve ramped up efforts to win back House seats in 2012, CBC members said they will also redouble their efforts to help Obama, who has seen his support among African-Americans dwindle. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sept. 21, 58 percent of African-Americans had “strongly favorable” views of Obama, compared with 83 percent who gave the same response just five months ago.
“I don’t care what the polls show,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), an early Obama supporter. “Speaking for myself, I’m going to triple my efforts from 2008 to make sure this president gets re-elected.”
But that doesn’t mean Members won’t continue to make suggestions about how the president could do his job better.
After all, an aide said, “It’s a family thing.”