Obama to black leaders: 'We have to stay unified'

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President Obama told a group of African-American leaders the country has been through worse times, and urged the group to “stay unified.”

More than 100 community leaders gathered at the White House Executive Office Building Wednesday for an African-American policy and leadership conference, at which administration officials outlined the policies they say have helped black Americans.

Among those in attendance were Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, former Essence magazine editor Susan Taylor, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, NAACP board chair Roslyn M. Brock, Rep. Donna Edwards, and prominent African-American minister Rev. Freddie Haynes, along with other invited community, political and faith leaders.

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Participants attended panel discussions with administration officials, along with a ceremony for the signing of an executive order reducing the amount of “schwag” handed out at White House events, intended as a cost saving measure.

The administration used the event, which was streamed live on the White House website, to release a report highlighting administration policies they claim have lessened the severity of the economic downturn for black and other households, including securing an extension of unemployment benefits and increasing funding for community health centers.

The meeting was a clear bid for political — and electoral — support from Obama’s most loyal base. High turnout among African-Americans will be key to the president’s re-election prospects in 2012. An NBC/Wall Street Journal/theGrio poll found strong continued support for the president among African-Americans.

“So many of you have worked so diligently during what has been one of the toughest fights in our country,” the president told those gathered. “Obviously we had an enormous challenge… the unemployment rate of the African-American community has almost always been higher than the norm. Many of the challenges that existed before the crisis have been worsened.”

The president called on those in attendance to help promote the American Jobs Act, and to mobilize their communities behind his job creation efforts, and by extension, for 2012.

“We have been through tougher times before,” the president said. “We know tough times. If we are persistent, unified and we remain hopeful, we’ll get through these tough times and better days lie ahead. Persistence, determination and unity. If you maintain that spirit I’m confident that not only the African -American community will emerge from difficult econ times stronger than we were before, but that this whole nation will be better than before.”