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Black Caucus Speech: What Did Obama Mean?

Amid a backlash for his tone with black folks, experts analyze his strange remarks.

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It's been four days since President Obama delivered remarks at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Phoenix Awards Dinner, just one of 10 speeches that he's given within that time. But the debate over what he said before that mostly African-American audience -- and how he chose to say it -- is still going strong.

The 28-minute speech, with its overall theme of faith and perseverance through hard times, was meant to inspire the black-tie crowd, which included all 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Acknowledging that black unemployment has reached 16.7 percent and that almost 40 percent of black children live in poverty, the president applauded the CBC for pushing legislation on the community's behalf. "With your help, we started fighting our way back from the brink," he said, citing child tax credits, consumer protections from mortgage lenders, expanded Pell Grants and health care reform as examples.

After calling for the passage of his American Jobs Act, and criticizing Republican opponents who are determined to block him every step of the way, a worked-up Obama concluded his speech: "I expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We've got work to do, CBC."

With a tap of the podium, Obama exited stage right. Bolting to their feet at his parting words, the crowd in the Washington Convention Center ballroom erupted into thunderous applause.

Well, most of the audience, anyway.

The Backlash Builds

On Monday, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) expressed concern about the president's tone. "I don't know who he was talking to, because we're certainly not complaining," she said on CBS' The Early Show. In fact, she noted, the CBC had long been pursuing a robust jobs initiative. Waters further pointed out that the president doesn't address other key voter blocs, such as Hispanic and gay and lesbian groups, quite the same way.

An irritated Courtland Milloy at the Washington Post wrote: "Funny, isn't it, how Obama always gets the nerve to say shut up when he's addressing a friendly audience?"

With the president's speech repeatedly summarized as "a fiery summons" that "told blacks ... to quit crying and complaining," as an Associated Press article put it, the enthusiastic in-person response quickly gave way to displeased takes on Obama's condescending attitude toward African Americans. From the extra bass and preacher-like inflection in his voice to those provocative closing sentences, observers demanded to know: What did he mean?

A Closer Look