(The Root) — Next to the Obamas and former President Bill Clinton, there was one other elected official whose speech captivated the crowd at the Democratic National Convention: Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). No one could blame the other speakers for claiming that he had an unfair advantage, though. After all, as a practicing Methodist minister, firing up crowds is something Cleaver does for a living. When he's not doing that, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus is striving to serve as President Obama's legislative conscience when it comes to issues affecting black Americans. Many members of his caucus will gather this week in Washington, D.C., to discuss those issues during an annual legislative conference.
Earlier this month in Charlotte, N.C., Cleaver spoke with The Root about why voter-ID laws and the president's gay marriage stance can hurt him at the polls, and why, nonetheless, black Americans give President Obama a pass that they would not give to a white president.
The Root: A lot of people think that Michelle Obama gave one of the best speeches of the DNC and that you did, too. Why do you think your speech generated so much attention?
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver: I think Mrs. Obama's speech was so powerful she could have called me down to do the Benediction and we could have ended this convention and gone home, so when I went down to speak I was certainly inspired by her speech. And, frankly, because I have been a minister for so many years there are times I can feel the crowd or the congregation and know what they want and where they want me to take them. And I was fortunate to have the nerve to veer away from the teleprompter.
TR: You've mentioned your background as a minister. There are some ministers who met during the Democratic National Convention to express their displeasure on the president's evolution on gay marriage. Do you have concerns that this reaction will negatively affect the president's re-election chances?
EC: Well, I could talk about it biblically and theologically, but I will talk about it politically.
Will there be some black voter drop because of the same-sex marriage issue? The answer is, unquestionably, yes. Will it be significant? No. Will black folk vote for the president with some anger toward that position? Yes. But the black voter is growing more sophisticated, in part because the president has been elevated to the highest office on the planet, so more black Americans are paying attention now and in the last four years than in the past. They are sophisticated enough to know that it is not a smart move to reject an individual for public office on one issue, because they would be opposed to Mitt Romney on 313 issues and opposed to Obama on one. So I believe they will come out and vote, and some of them will vote and hold their noses.
TR: As a member of the clergy, were you personally disappointed with his announcement of his evolution on gay marriage?
EC: I wasn't disappointed, but probably a little frustrated that he went and talked about it because I don't think he needed to do that, because frankly I don't think that's anybody's business. Because it's not like he signed a bill into law or changed anything administratively. He just stood and gave his opinion, and that was all.
TR: Do you think if you had to compare, that this administration has done more for the LGBT community than it has for the black community?
EC: I think this administration feels far more comfortable in dealing with LGBT or Latino issues because they will never be accused of embracing those issues more than others of the American public. But the moment the president says "black," they will begin to call him H. Rapp Brown and Eldridge Cleaver and [say], "he's a member of the Black Panther Party." The next African-American president will not be encumbered with that kind of weight on his or her shoulders.
Now, I was elected mayor of a city that is 75 percent white, and after a short period of time — probably the first year — I decided I had to be who I was, and I did. I was elected to a second term. Maybe it's different and worked in Kansas City, Mo., but wouldn't work nationally. I don't know.
TR: You think he's not comfortable being who he is?
EC: Well, just look at what's happened. For the first time in history someone interrupted the State of the Union speech, shouting at him, "You lie." We can't go and vote without seeing people with signs of Obama in a Hitler mustache. Now they're trying to say he removed the worker requirement in the welfare law — which is a lie, a bold-faced lie — and he won't say anything about being black. Imagine if he did.
TR: Do you think given the current unemployment numbers in the black community — combined with Gov. Mitt Romney still polling at zero percent among black voters — does the black community give President Obama a pass because he's black?
EC: Well, I'm supposed to say he doesn't get a pass, but I'm not going to say that. Look, as the chair of the Black Caucus I've got to tell you, we are always hesitant to criticize the president. With 14 percent [black] unemployment (PDF) if we had a white president we'd be marching around the White House. However, I [also] don't think the Irish would do that to the first Irish president or Jews would do that to the first Jewish president; but we're human and we have a sense of pride about the president. The president knows we are going to act in deference to him in a way we wouldn't to someone white.
TR: Would that change in a second term?
EC: I think in a second term we will be a little more comfortable.
TR: You did not support President Obama during the 2008 primary but instead, his opponent Sen. Clinton. How do you think a Hillary Clinton presidency would have been different?
EC: Well, we wouldn't have had a lot of racial stuff, and as much as I love Sen. Clinton I would have been all over her on 14 percent unemployment for African Americans. I would have said, "My sister, I love you, but this has got to go."
TR: How badly do you think these voter-ID laws could hurt President Obama's re-election chances?
EC: We know that the voter-ID laws only need to knock off 2 to 5 percent of the black vote and the president would be in jeopardy of losing. The whole effort of these voter-ID laws is a solution looking for a problem, and I hope in the end we will be able to fight these laws in Congress. The CBC will be doing a voter-protection tour starting in Cincinnati. We will be having concerts, and if you show your voter registration card you get in for free. If you are not registered but register at the door, you can get in for free.
Black voters count, and they can make the difference. I want them to know that.
Please visit thecongressionalblackcaucus.comvoteready for more information on the tour.
Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.