WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama is dealing with the war in Syria, recent deadly mass shootings, and threats from some Republicans in Congress that they’ll defund his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.
Yet on Saturday night at the annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Inc. awards dinner, Obama sounded determined and at times defiant, telling the audience that “we can’t let up and we can’t rest,” when it comes to making America a safer nation, with increased economic parity and social opportunity, and widely available health care for all.
The president was the keynote speaker for a black-tie affair at the Washington Convention Center, with several hundred guests who reportedly paid $750 per ticket for an evening of dining, live entertainment and power networking.
The event was the culmination of the Congressional Black Caucus’s 43rd Annual Legislative Conference, which kicked off last Wednesday with four days of policy and community-building sessions, plus gala soirees that drew celebrities like The View co-host Sherri Shepherd.
This year’s Caucus dinner, a tribute to the “Spirit of 1963” and the Civil Rights Movement, featured footage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, an iconic Caucus member who touted the national progress made since the seminal March on Washington nearly a half-century ago.
The foundation also recognized several other individuals, giving “Phoenix” leadership awards to Maryland Congressman Elijah E. Cummings; Elaine Jones, former president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and Bill Clinton (who was not present but sent a video message). Several interns who’ve benefited from educational opportunities and mentoring from the Caucus were celebrated, too.
Still, Obama was clearly the main event.
The president strode on stage accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama, amid cheers and thunderous applause from the predominately black crowd.
He thanked the Caucus for its work on such issues as protecting nutrition aid for needy families, before launching into several key themes: among them, gun violence, raising the minimum wage, college affordability, and making sure the forthcoming rollout of the Affordable Care Act isn’t hijacked by his political enemies.
Obama began by reiterating a social justice message similar to words he delivered last month on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, during the 50th anniversary of the famous march.
“We all understand we have to be vigilant against any attempt to roll back our hard-won civil rights,” said Obama, “whether that means tearing down barriers put up by those who seek to restrict the right to vote, or making sure our criminal justice system works equally well for everybody, not just for some.”
But he noted that black unemployment remains “twice as high as white unemployment,” and noted that “working Americans of all races have seen their incomes and wages stagnate even as corporate profits and the incomes of folks at the very top are soaring.”
Later he added, “We have to make this a country where anybody who works hard can earn their way into the middle class.”
The president also lamented a recent spate of gun violence that killed naval personnel and contractors in Washington D.C., and left a toddler and others dead on a playground in his adopted hometown of Chicago.
“… We can’t rest until all of our children can go to school or walk down the street free from the fear that they will be struck down by a stray bullet,” he said, indicating he would be meeting soon with families “who now know the same unspeakable grief of families in Newtown, and Aurora, and Tucson, and Chicago, and New Orleans, and all across the country — people whose loved ones were torn from them without headlines sometimes, or public outcry.”
“But it’s happening every single day,” he added.
He called on lawmakers to pass substantive gun control measures—particularly for the sake of the nation’s children.
“We fought a good fight earlier this year, but we came up short. And that means we’ve got to get back up and go back at it,” he said.
President Obama also talked about his controversial healthcare legislation, known widely as Obamacare; open enrollment begins on October 1.
“We can’t rest until every American knows the security of quality, affordable health care. In just over a week, thanks to the Affordable Care Act that so many of you fought so hard to pass, six in 10 uninsured Americans will finally be able to get covered for less than $100 a month,” he said.
But he noted that an “extreme faction” of the Republican party has convinced its leaders to threaten a government shut-down if the Administration doesn’t torpedo the healthcare plan.
The president didn’t mince words.
“Your top agenda is making sure 20 million people don’t have health insurance,” he said. “And you’d be willing to shut down the government and potentially default for the first time in United States history because it bothers you so much that we’re actually going to make sure that everybody has affordable health care.
“Let me say as clearly as I can: It is not going to happen! We have come too far. …We will not negotiate over whether or not America should keep its word and meet its obligations. We’re not going to allow anyone to inflict economic pain on millions of our own people just to make an ideological point.”
Clearly comfortable before supporters who attended the dinner as well as Administration members such as Attorney General Eric Holder, the president appeared relaxed and even playful.
He joked that Caucus members have told him to “hang in there, man,” but he told them, “don’t worry about me.”
“I am still fired up, ” said the president, “because I still see the work that needs to be done. …We’re going to have to keep marching. “