Today President Barack Obama will meet at the White House with the Congressional Black Caucus — less than two months after his Oval Office sit-down with the CBC's five-member executive board in March, and one week after the caucus met with White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley. It's a noticeable change of pace from the previous Congress, during which Obama met with the CBC just two times in two years.
While CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver is pleased by the improved lines of communication with Obama, the meeting comes amid an exceedingly dismal political climate: a jobs report with black unemployment rising yet again, to 16 percent, congressional deficit-reduction campaigns to slash more social services for the poor and no clear action plan to remedy these issues.
Just before the CBC's White House discussion, Rep. Cleaver talked to The Root about the group's priorities going in, the caucus' new plan for maneuvering around a Republican-controlled House and how lone Republican member Allen West is fitting into the club.
The Root: This will be the CBC's second meeting with the president in the past few months. Why the increased attention?
Emanuel Cleaver: The reason we're meeting more than CBC groups in previous years is rather simple: The problems we face are Herculean and much more in need of multiple bodies providing attention. So the president wants to meet with members who represent the nation's disproportionately vulnerable population, and we are they. On this particular occasion, the White House staff contacted us, and we promptly said, "Yes, we would like to have that time with the president."
TR: You also met with White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley last month. What's been the takeaway from all of these conversations, and what specific action steps are you building toward?
EC: We believe that there's a need for an aggressive jobs program. Our meetings are consistently dealing with the jobs program in terms of the president hearing not complaints but proposals from us on how we can put something like that in place.
TR: Is there specific jobs legislation that the CBC is pushing for the White House to support?
EC: Well, no. Legislation won't matter because we're in the minority. I'm not supposed to say that, but the truth is it won't matter. We're not going to be able to get any Democratic jobs program approved. But there are other options and opportunities for us, and we are exploring them.
I don't want to get into specifics because we haven't met yet, and that would be improper. But we believe that there are creative ways of doing things without approaching the legislature or requiring a new allocation of funds. We can approach the jobs program — albeit less potently than we would if we were in charge — if we look at new and creative ways to do it. The old ways just won't work.
TR: Does that mean the 99ers bill (for workers who have exhausted their unemployment benefits) is off the table?
EC: That's not going to happen, in spite of the fact that we feel strongly about it. There's $31 billion being returned to the federal government that could be used for unemployment benefits, but states have decided that they will just send that money back, and they're not going to administer it. The 99ers issue is one that we know is not going to be funded because it will require new legislation that would never get out of the House.
TR: Obama has repeatedly rejected the idea of targeted assistance for minority communities, something the CBC has advocated for. How do you navigate that conflict?
EC: We've got to have 21st-century tactics. We will probably find it infinitely easier to create jobs from census tracts, as opposed to racial classifications. Instead of saying, "Mr. President, it would be helpful if you would concentrate on what's happening to African Americans because we are disproportionately impacted," and having him say that he's not going to concentrate on any one group, I have advocated since Day 1 that we should deal with census tracts.
Poor people tend to live in close proximity to one another, so if a program can be designed around where vulnerable people live, it will achieve our purpose. We're working on that right now, and we'll work on it further in our meeting with the president on Thursday.
EC: I made the decision as chair not to exclude him from Thursday's meeting. I would expect that he will make that determination himself. [On Wednesday] we met with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the CBC's weekly meeting, and he chose not to attend.
I can understand and appreciate that he did not attend. He's been very strategic in his attendance at our meetings, but I'm pleased to say that he does participate. We try to make sure that there's always an open opportunity for him and other African-American members who are Republican to participate with the CBC.
TR: You mentioned the CBC meeting with Secretary Tom Vilsack, on the Agriculture Department's Civil Rights Assessment report (pdf), which details new approaches for the racial-discrimination issues that have historically plagued the agency. What do you think of their recommendations?
EC: We think that the report was well done. The questioning of Vilsack on the data in the report was aggressive, but I think members were pleased that we have gone into an area of remedy the likes of which we've not seen in our lifetime, with regards to what has historically been called "the last plantation." We also discussed implementation — it's one thing to do a report; it's another thing to have it implemented.
TR: Much has been made of President Obama's recent schedule of events with Hispanic leaders. How do you feel about his attention to the African-American community and black unemployment — has it been enough?
EC: No group, including the Black Caucus, is going to feel that the president is spending enough time on the issues they are most concerned about. The Progressive Caucus, the Blue Dogs and everybody else feels that way. So the answer is no, but it's also no different than any other caucus. We only have to concentrate on five or six issues as individual members of Congress.
For example, I don't do a lot of research on intelligence issues. But the president has 400 different issues at one time. So it would be untrue for me to say that we think the president has committed sufficient time to just our issues, but neither did Bush, Clinton, the other Bush, or Carter or anybody else. The nature of being president is having all these groups dissatisfied that you're not giving them enough time.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.