Black lawmakers who have largely held their tongues during President Barack Obama's first year in office are stepping up their demands that the nation's first black president do more for minority communities hit hardest by the recession.
While still careful about criticizing Obama publicly, they appear to be losing their patience after watching him dedicate more than $1 trillion to prop up banks and corporations and fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while double-digit unemployment among blacks crept even higher.
"Obama has tried desperately to stay away from race, and all of us understand what he's doing," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. "But when you have such a disproportionate number of African-Americans unemployed, it would be irresponsible not to direct attention and resources to the people who are receiving the greatest level of pain."
Dating back to Obama's campaign, many black leaders have pressed him to take more of a stand on the challenges facing minorities. Most voiced criticisms privately for fear of jeopardizing his candidacy or undercutting his popularity after his election. They also have tread lightly so as not to be at odds with their own majority-black constituencies, who strongly support Obama.
But frustration has been building.
The 42-member Congressional Black Caucus flexed its influence last week when 10 of its members held up a financial regulation bill backed by the administration until leaders agreed to add about $3 billion in foreclosure relief for struggling homeowners. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the House Financial Services Committee chairman, later added $1 billion for neighborhood revitalization programs.
During the stalemate, the lawmakers issued a statement saying they would no longer support public policy "defined by the world view of Wall Street."
"Policy for the least of these must be integrated into everything that we do," they said.
And earlier this week, the all-Democratic caucus responded to Obama's proposal for a new jobs package by saying it would insist on initiatives targeted to minorities. Pointing to outsized percentages of African-Americans losing their jobs and homes, caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said Obama must live up to his campaign talk that racial disparities cannot be ignored.
"The facts speak for themselves," Lee said. "The gaps are very real."
Some have sought to pin blame on the president's advisers.
"It's not the president. It's his economic team," said Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla. "I don't think they're doing their job."
The unemployment rate among African-Americans is nearly 16 percent, almost double the 9 percent rate for whites. Roughly one in four blacks lives in poverty, compared with about 11 percent of whites.
Obama was a black caucus member in the Senate before winning the White House last year, but he has never had a close relationship with the group. In recent interviews, he has addressed their criticisms by saying he must represent the entire country, not any one population, and the best way to help low-income communities is to improve the overall economy.
"I think it's a mistake to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together," he said.
Many blacks in Congress take exception to that view, arguing that decades of neglect and discrimination warrant particular attention to minority concerns. Veteran black lawmakers such as Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., have been among the most vocal.
Conyers told The Hill newspaper that Obama called last month to ask why Conyers was "demeaning" him so much. Conyers has since declined to discuss the call, and Lee wouldn't say whether she has had a similar conversation with the president.
Black lawmakers say the differences are not new and Obama shouldn't take them personally. The caucus has had similar disputes with most recent presidents, including in 1993 when it spurned an invitation to meet with President Bill Clinton over potential budget cuts to domestic programs such as Medicare.
"What I think the CBC is saying is that our voices have to be raised on behalf of our constituents, just as the Blue Dogs or any other caucus does," said Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., referring to the conservative Democratic group that has leverage because it often holds swing votes. "In politics, what happens is the squeaky wheel gets the oil."
On the Net:
Congressional Black Caucus: http://www.thecongressionalblackcaucus.com/
White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov/