Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus: Allies and Foes

His Lasting Legacy: The election of the first black president was a historic moment of jubilation, but the relationship between black members of Congress and Obama was often strained.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama greet guests at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 46th Annual Legislative Conference on Sept. 17, 2016, in Washington, D.C. Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

“If Bill Clinton had been in the White House and had failed to address this problem, we probably would be marching on the White House. There is a less-volatile reaction in the CBC because nobody wants to do anything that would empower the people who hate the president.” —Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the unprecedented event was a moment of jubilation and historic revelry for the members of the Congressional Black Caucus. What no one anticipated was the difficult relationship between the first black president and the then-42 members of the caucus.

To say that the CBC’s relationship with the first black president has had its peaks and valleys would be a vast understatement. Their relationship was primarily a tale of “one-way loyalty,” as Glen Ford defined it in Black Agenda Report in September 2009:

The president always maintained the clear upper hand by simply holding a much more powerful position than any member of Congress and more importantly by having an exultant status in the minds of many of their African-American constituents. The president also enjoyed the power of the bully pulpit, which, for a president with superior speaking ability, was a power larger than most commanders-in-chief.

The White House did not respond to requests for interviews about this story. The reluctance to discuss the relationship between Obama and the CBC wasn’t surprising, given the irony of the situation. Any look back at the CBC relationship, from the White House perspective, includes the fact that many senior CBC members did not endorse then-Sen. Obama for president in 2007. It also includes the reality of what happens when a political upstart bursts onto the scene without the years of friendship building that occur between members serving in Congress over many decades. Though members of the Congressional Black Caucus spoke in general terms on the CBC-Obama relationship for this piece­, many were reluctant to relive the more painful details.

The high point in the CBC-Obama relationship may have been right after his election, when the caucus, then led by Chairwoman Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), was meeting with members of the Obama administration on bread-and-butter issues. Soon the stimulus bill passed Congress (Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate). But by the end of 2009, the CBC and the president had had their first major confrontation.

It was over the allocation of Troubled Asset Relief Program money in the wake of the subprime-mortgage crisis. Ten members of the CBC on the committee of jurisdiction, the House Financial Services Committee, boycotted the vote, and President Obama had to send his then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to Capitol Hill.

The CBC members were protesting the lack of financial support for black-owned financial institutions and other entities. They were also quick to notice the Obama administration’s willingness to support Wall Street over the needs of Main Street in the wake of the financial crisis.

Given that Obama supported a plan to bail out banks after the subprime-mortgage crisis—a plan created by two captains of Wall Street, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and former Bush Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs executive Hank Paulson—some in the CBC were suspicious. The clash over how to deal with the subprime-mortgage crisis, which would cause a massive collapse of black wealth, led to the first strain in the relationship between the president and the CBC in the first year of his presidency.

“We have not been forceful enough in our efforts to protect the most vulnerable of our population,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif)., representing one of the nation’s poorest districts. “We can no longer afford for our public policy to be defined by the worldview of Wall Street.”

Unlike what would happen in years to come, the first fight between the president and the CBC took place in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, out of sight from press. Members of the caucus were careful not to talk about the disagreement to the press because they were reluctant to be publicly critical of Obama.

A Fight Over Jobs

During Obama’s presidency, black members of Congress were often torn. Do they blindly support an icon of their African-American constituents, one whose face was hanging in church lobbies alongside that of Martin Luther King Jr.? Or do they react and speak out loudly on what they know is going on in their congressional districts day in and day out? Fairly or not, Obama’s time in office was often viewed as the best chance in years to confront many of the problems in black communities.

One of the biggest clashes between the president and the CBC happened over staggering black unemployment and jobs. The highest black unemployment rate in 27 years hit in September 2011. That year, black unemployment was over 16 percent—the highest since Ronald Reagan was president.

“If Bill Clinton had been in the White House and had failed to address this problem, we probably would be marching on the White House. There is a less-volatile reaction in the CBC because nobody wants to do anything that would empower the people who hate the president,” then-CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said to a reporter at the time.

But two months earlier, in July 2011, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the most senior member of the CBC, did call for a march on the White House over the jobs issue.

“[In 1987] we passed the first bill that allowed the government—in areas of high unemployment—to directly intervene and create jobs. Well, we’ve got the bill in here again and I’ve got nothing from the White House,” Conyers said during a July 27, 2011, press conference on Capitol Hill.