Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) had a bit of a "Moment" in August. Along the five stops of the Congressional Black Caucus' "For the People" Jobs Tour, she made headlines for a series of heated town hall remarks and media interviews challenging the Obama administration to direct more targeted help for black communities with high unemployment, pushing back against Tea Party momentum and interrogating federal officials for demurring at saying the word "black."
With African-American unemployment officially at 16.7 percent — the highest level since 1984 — Waters vowed to adopt tougher tactics with her Republican colleagues this fall and put more pressure on the president. So when President Obama finally revealed the American Jobs Act on Thursday, I wondered whether his plan warranted a "yea" or "nay" from the congresswoman.
I caught up with a "very pleased" Waters for her assessment of the bill and its potential impact, and why, despite political dysfunction being at an all-time high, she thinks it stands a fighting chance.
The Root: What do you think of the American Jobs Act?
Maxine Waters: I think it holds a lot of promise, and it was more than many people expected. I'm very pleased, the closer I look at the details of the plan, to see the impact on African Americans and the economy. I'm looking at an additional document [pdf] that the White House put out, which focuses on that. We've asked for targeting to the areas that have the most need, and basically they have responded with some of the targeting that we wanted them to do.
The Congressional Black Caucus, as you know, put a face on poverty and unemployment when we went out and did the job fairs. And of course, I did some additional work to put the pressure on the White House. [Laughs.]
TR: Do you think the attention from those job fairs and town halls influenced what was in the president's bill?
MW: I think it absolutely did. The job fairs put a real face on the unemployment problem. The [attendance] numbers were overwhelming, from the time we started out in Cleveland on up through Los Angeles, where we registered 10,000 people that day. And at our town hall meeting in Detroit, people showed some real anger and told us to push the president. When I confronted the reality of the politics of how you handle talking with the administration, they literally gave us permission. From that point on, we got more focused in talking with the White House, and in my public interviews I was more direct.
We wanted the whole plan to be big. While I even called for a trillion, $450 billion is substantial. We supported the extension of unemployment insurance, which will benefit 1.4 million African Americans and their families. The president mentioned in his speech targeted support for the long-term unemployed, which we also kept high on our agenda. We talked about our unemployed youth, up to 45 percent in some areas, and he came out in his speech talking about subsidized jobs and summer and year-round programs for disadvantaged youth. So I think he started out right.
TR: Before the president's speech on Thursday, you said that in his remarks, "he must acknowledge the economic disaster in the African-American community." Did you mean that he must use the words "African American" or "black" specifically?
MW: You know, I've encouraged speaking to the African-American community. If you noticed, he did speak to the veterans on Thursday night. I think when you are trying to assist a particular group of people because of what is going on in those communities, then it's good to talk to them and let them know. He did not do that with African Americans in a way that perhaps I would like, but his follow-up fact sheet certainly speaks directly to the targeting.
TR: As for getting the bill passed, what can Democrats realistically expect in a divided Congress that isn't willing to support any Obama proposals?
MW: My strong philosophical belief is that you have to fight for what you think is fair, and what you think you need, and what you think you deserve. The first step in the fight is to say what you want — not to anticipate that someone is going to say you can't have it. The president started off right in doing that. Now he's got to use his negotiating skills, and we've all got to use everything that we have.
For example, after we did the job fairs, I had many Republicans come up to me and say, "Oh my goodness, those people who were standing in line! I didn't realize it was like that; that is horrible!" I had at least a half dozen people stop me and say that. I think that's a good sign that perhaps we did reveal something they were not focused on. Perhaps there is some information that they gained that will make them more sympathetic toward doing more to help the highest unemployed constituency in this country.
And then you have to remember, the jobs question is not just about African Americans; it is about all Americans. And many of them come from districts — Appalachia and other rural communities — where they haven't really addressed this issue. I think there's a chance to get something substantial, and we've got to work at it and fight for it.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.