After a contentious summer, it seems the Congressional Black Caucus has found harmony with President Barack Obama.
In August, CBC members like Rep. Maxine Waters of California and John Conyers of Michigan were declaring that the White House needed to do more to address high unemployment in the black community. Waters specifically called for “targeted” programs that would directly help struggling black families. There was an air of combativeness in the tone of comments coming out of the CBC’s multi-city “for the people” jobs tour.
Now, the tone has changed.
Last Thursday, the Congressional Black Caucus sent out an email blasting Senate Republicans for blocking the confirmation of President Barack Obama’s choice to head the new consumer protection agency created under the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. It was among several recent emails from the CBC, most signed by its chairman, Emanuel Cleaver (D-Ohio), attacking congressional Republicans for blocking the president’s priorities. The email came within days of a White House press call in which senior administration officials pitched a report by the National Economic Council that outlining how a failure to confirm Richard Cordray would tie the hands of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB); and a Wednesday conference call with reporters in which Cleaver and Richmond, Virginia mayor Dwight Jones rallied behind Cordray’s nomination and pitched the “importance of Cordray’s confirmation to protect African American consumers.”
The symmetry of messaging between the White House and the CBC is just one sign of a warmer relationship. Early in the Obama administration, some black caucus members grumbled about a lack of access to the White House; ironic in the wake of the election of the country’s first black president.
The White House downplays any talk of difficult relations with the CBC.
“We have always had a good working relationship with members of the CBC,” Senior Adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett told theGrio. “We had a terrific relationship with [Rep.] Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) when she was the chair, and we have a terrific relationship with Chairman Cleaver.”
But Jarrett acknowledged that there have been tense moments between the White House and some members of the CBC in the past. “I think that’s fair to say,” Jarrett said. But she said those tensions grew out of the frustrations the members were hearing from their constituents about the economy. “They were hearing questions in the community about what is the administration was doing” with regard to jobs, Jarrett said. “We needed to give them a more robust briefing, and that has happened now.”
“I think that there are several of the members who were feeling like they weren’t completely up to speed on everything the president is doing to help the African-American community,” Jarrett said. “But I think their comfort level has increased.”
Cleaver called the stories of tension “both perception and reality,” but agreed that the cause was the economy.
“There was no personal animosity between anyone in the CBC and the president,” Cleaver said.
“What you heard and saw [this summer] was some members in the CBC pressing the frustration of their constituents,” Cleaver said. “People point to the tumultuous meeting we had in [at a CBC town hall in] Detroit, during which Congressman Conyers and Congresswoman Waters were very very clear about their desire to have the president give attention to black unemployment, because of its high intolerable level. And we were in Detroit, where unemployment is at 40 percent. So it was required that people speak in emotional tones because the people were angry, and probably still are.”
Cleaver said he believes the White House “heard the message” from Detroit. And he pointed to what he calls a shift in policy after the summer as indication that, “I think they understand.”
“We didn’t do the jobs initiative to put the president in a bad light,” said a CBC official who spoke to theGrio on condition of anonymity. “We were shining a light on an issue that was being ignored by everybody, from the congress on. There was no strategy to be harsh or confrontational, but unfortunately, when you’re dealing with double-digit unemployment since the recession, the members felt the pain and the passion from the community, and that sparked a couple of moments that will go down in history.”
The official said the outcome of the jobs tour drama has been good, in that it produced a national conversation on jobs, and that while the American Jobs Act being debated in Congress lacks the direct targeting of African-Americans that Waters and other CBC members wanted, members’ ideas made it into the proposal.
“A lot of the policies that would be put in place if congress would consider [the Jobs Act] would greatly affect the African-American community and low income Americans,” the official said. “So the tour accomplished what it set out to do, which is shine a light on these issues and bring them to a table.”
Cleaver agreed, saying that by summer’s end, the dynamics between the White House and the CBC changed.
“After the summer, the president focused like a laser on jobs and I think that excited the CBC, the [House Hispanic caucus], organized labor and other components of the Democratic base.” Referring to the American Jobs Act, Cleaver said, “this is what we want, this is what we need.”
“I don’t want to say that the CBC pushed the White House into doing that, but the CBC certainly made it a national discussion piece.”
Cleaver acknowledged that election year politics, and Republican intransigence, also played a role.
“Make no mistake, when we moved into the fall, and began to listen to the tone of things [from the GOP,] we clearly made it known that we were going to be with the president. In fact, I went to a meeting and said to the president, ‘Mr. President, 42 of the 43 members of the CBC are irreversibly committed to your re-election,” the 43rd being Republican Congressman Allen West of Florida.
Jarrett dismissed politics as a consideration in the White House’s stepped up outreach to the CBC and to black media and activists — including a releasing a report on how its policies have benefited black communities, and a conference at the White House to brief black community leaders last month.
Instead, Jarrett said the administration is simply making a third-year shift, from problem solving and focusing on the immediate crises that faced the president upon taking office, to touting the administration’s policy successes.
“The president is stepping up telling the story of our accomplishments,” Jarrett said. “In that sense you see a shift just by nature of the fact that we have three years under our belt. In the beginning, we were developing our story by rolling up our sleeves,” on such things as accelerated payments to small businesses doing business with the federal government, education reform, the Pigford settlement with black farmers, and healthcare reform, which Jarrett said would result in 8 million more African-Americans having access to health insurance.
Jarrett called the White House report “a good opportunity for us to do what the CBC had been telling us to do; which was tell our story, so they could go home and tell our story as well. I think in first two years we didn’t do as good a job as we could have at that, since we were busy doing the work. But it’s a good story of progress.”
Jarrett pointed to increased contact between the two sides, saying Cleaver will bring a group of black business leaders to the White House this week to meet with the president and “talk about what we can do to grow the economy,” and touted past and future meetings between caucus members and herself, Attorney General Eric holder, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan as further evidence that the two sides enjoy an open line of communication.
Cleaver, too, touted meetings he has held with Jarrett, and with Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DNC Executive Directorr Patrick Gaspard, the former White House political director, and White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley.
“Those discussions were aimed at making sure there is no light between the president and the CBC because our issues surrounding jobs have nothing do to with whether we support the president. We do.”
“I do think there were members of the CBC who were looking to have a closer working relationship with the White House and I think that’s something that we welcome, and have reached out accordingly,” Jarrett said.
“We’ve come a long way,” the CBC official said. “We’ve seen lots of things now. We’ve seen action. I think the members feel more included. We [and the White House are] on the same page. And at the end of the day, we’re headed into 2012, and we all know who would be the best person for the job.”
Jarrett, however, insisted the president is focused on the economy and jobs, not the 2012 election.
“What the president thinks about every morning is what are we gonna do to improve the economy and make sure when families sit around the dinner table, they can benefit from an economy that works for them. That’s why we’re focused on extending the payroll tax cut. We’re not thinking 12 months down the road, we’re thinking about the vantage point of right now, when people are struggling. Jobs are the single most important issue for African-Americans and throughout the country.”
“The African-American population is vitally important to the overall economy and the president often talks about American dream needs to be possible for everybody. That’s what the president is here fighting.”