Obama employment plan heartens frustrated blacks
President Barack Obama’s jobs pitch is already playing well with blacks, who had grown plenty irked with him over what they perceived as his indifference to their needs.
A day after Obama laid out before Congress his plan to kick-start job growth, many blacks hoped it would translate into reduced misery for them over the coming months. While the country’s unemployment rate stands at 9.1 percent, black unemployment has hit 16.7 percent, the highest since 1984. Unemployment among male blacks is at 18 percent, and black teens are unemployed at a rate of 46.5 percent.
The early signs of their reaction were positive.
Social media sites were abuzz with highlights from the president’s plan. Amid the comments were excited responses to the proposal, especially from the black community. Twitter was full of similar bursts of excitement over the plan, with some black Tweeters defending the president and applauding his message. One user tweeted: “Taking a sharp tone ‘cause the NumbersDontLie! Pass this bill and put America back to work.”
Prominent African Americans like Kenneth Chenault, chairman and CEO of American Express and Michael Nutter, mayor of Philadelphia, quickly applauded the plan. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., has been one of the most vocal advocates for dealing more effectively with black unemployment, but she was enthusiastic.
For the president, it was a welcome change in tone after a steady drumbeat of criticism from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who held their own job fairs and town hall meetings while protesting that Obama’s jobs tour across America last month bypassed black communities.
The caucus’ urban blitz cleared a path for the country’s first black president to act, Waters said.
“I can see that our handprint is all over it,” Waters said of Obama’s plan. “We upped the ante a little bit by pushing, being a bit more vocal. This was not done in a way to threaten the president but to make it easier for him. We think we helped him to be able to formulate a response.”
The jobs plan was praised by Ralph Everett, president and chief executive of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonpartisan black think tank.
Although the president did not specifically mention high unemployment among blacks, black people “are sophisticated enough to understand” how their communities will benefit, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Friday.
“Obviously there is a debate raging, saying that we should come out and say this expressly for the black and Latino community,” Kirk said. “But this president got elected spectacularly on his premise that we are not a black America, a brown America, a white America. We are one America.”
The White House moved quickly to capitalize politically on the good will, emailing an extraordinary blast of supportive statements from elected officials, union leaders and interest groups within minutes after Obama spoke last Thursday night.
On Friday, while the president pushed his American Jobs Act in Richmond, Va., his aides promoted targeted relief to Hispanics, teachers, police officers, construction workers, small businesses and others.
Administration officials said the plan would extend unemployment benefits and provide support for 1.4 million blacks who have been unemployed six months or longer. It also would provide summer and subsidized jobs for youth, help boost the paychecks of 20 million black workers through an extension and expansion of the payroll tax, and benefit, in some way, more than 100,000 black-owned small businesses.
“With over 16 percent of African Americans out of work and over 1 million African Americans out of work over six months, I think the president believes this is a serious problem and the onus is on us to do everything we can to tackle this,” Danielle Gray, deputy director of the National Economic Council, told reporters.
White House adviser Valerie Jarrett promoted Obama’s plan on Steve Harvey’s syndicated morning radio show, saying it would help “every part of our country, but particularly those who are the most vulnerable, who have been struggling the hardest, who have been trying to make ends meet and all they need is a little help from their government.”
A factor in the early enthusiasm in Obama’s plan with blacks is that most accept that, as the country’s first black president, there are limits to what he can do about their specific problems, especially as he heads into the 2012 campaign.
“Do I think he’s doing everything he can? Yes, of course,” said Tonia Thomas, 44, a divorced Atlanta mother who was unemployed for more than a year before taking a $30,000 pay cut to work as a hotel clerk. “A lot of what’s going on is being used to exclude people of color in general. I don’t know what he can do.”
The president has to be careful in targeting his efforts, some say.
“The more he talks about race, the more votes he loses,” said Randall Kennedy, author of a new book exploring racial politics and the Obama presidency. “Barack Obama had to overcome his blackness to become president … and he’s going to have to overcome it to be re-elected.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, an Obama supporter who engaged in damage control for the president this week, said black Americans “need to burst this false notion” that the president should put black unemployment on par with overall unemployment.
“If leaders in our community want to push him to lay out a black agenda, I believe that will end up disserving the black community and help elect people who certainly don’t have a past history about caring about the interests of the African American community,” Reed said after Obama’s speech. “This debate is weakening the president and puts him in a political position where he has to do something to confirm his blackness.”
Associated Press writer Suzanne Gamboa reported from Washington.