When speaking before black audiences, President Obama tends to be more charismatic in his delivery. He just plays the room differently — gripping and galvanizing, with a preacherlike cadence that can sometimes rise to a holler at points of emphasis.
That was certainly the case on Saturday night at the annual Phoenix Awards Dinner, the culminating event of the 41st Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference. Hosted by local news anchor Maureen Bunyan and actor Hill Harper (also a former Harvard Law classmate of the president's), this year's black-tie ceremony honored EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson for her attention to environmental health impacts on the poor through the agency; boxer and entrepreneur George Foreman for his Houston-based ministry and youth charity work; civil rights leader and Southern Christian Leadership Conference founder Joseph Lowery for his lifelong commitment to justice; and Georgia Rep. John Lewis for his bravery in SNCC and the Freedom Rides during the 1960s.
Powerful as the awards presentations were, the event's standout moment was President Obama's speech, which centered on faith and perseverance during hard times (while also pushing his jobs bill and deficit-reduction plan, naturally). He opened his remarks with an anecdote about a sermon he once heard Rev. Lowery deliver, which professed that there's "good crazy" and "bad crazy" — and sometimes you need a little bit of the good crazy, fueled by faith, to make the world a better place.
"No matter how hard things get, we keep the faith. We keep fighting; we keep moving forward," Obama said, before detailing the direness of the times we're in, with a specific emphasis on African-American struggle. "The unemployment rate for black folks went up to nearly 17 percent — the highest it's been in almost three decades. Forty percent, almost, of African-American children are living in poverty; fewer than half convinced that they can achieve Dr. King's dream. You've got to be a little crazy to have faith during such hard times. It's heartbreaking, and it's frustrating. And I ran for president, and the members of the CBC ran for Congress, to help more Americans reach that dream."
"Pass this Jobs Bill"
Next Obama touted some of his efforts to stabilize the economy and provide a safety net for the poor and unemployed, including multiple tax cuts, financial regulatory reform, a near doubling of Pell Grants, an extension of unemployment insurance and health care reform. "Ask the family struggling to make ends meet if that extra few hundred dollars in their mother's paycheck from the payroll tax cut we passed made a difference," he said. "Ask the engineering student at an HBCU who thought he might have to leave school if that extra Pell Grant assistance mattered."
Acknowledging that there's far more work needed to alleviate the country's economic pain, the president hit his selling points for his jobs bill and deficit-reduction plan, again urging Congress to act on them. "These Republicans in Congress like to talk about job creators. How about doing something real for job creators? Pass this jobs bill, and every small-business owner in America, including 100,000 black-owned businesses, will get a tax cut," he said of the American Jobs Act, his voice rising to a near shout and the audience jumping to its feet. "You say you're the party of tax cuts. Pass this jobs bill, and every worker in America, including nearly 20 million African-American workers, will get a tax cut."
"Bad Crazy" vs. "Good Crazy"
Addressing opposition to the bill, the president assumed a somewhat taunting posture. "The kinds of ideas in this plan, in the past, have been supported by both parties. Suddenly Obama is proposing it — what happened?" he said, looking around in mock confusion. "Y'all used to like to build roads. Right? What happened?"
On his deficit-reduction proposal, the president stressed his vision for a new "Buffet Rule" tax law — and played it sharply against Republican proposals to allow the current payroll tax cut for all working Americans to expire. "The reform we're proposing is based on a simple principle: Middle-class folks should not pay higher tax rates than millionaires and billionaires. That's not crazy — or it's good crazy," said the president.
"The Republicans are already dusting off their old talking points. 'That's class warfare,' they say. In fact, in the next breath, they'll complain that people living in poverty — people who suffered the most over the past decade — don't pay enough in taxes. That's bad crazy," Obama said to thunderous applause. "When you start saying — at a time when the top one-tenth of 1 percent has seen their incomes go up four or five times over the last 20 years, and folks at the bottom have seen their incomes decline — and your response is that you want poor folks to pay more? Give me a break."
Discouraged? "Shake it Off"
The president closed by telling the audience not to give in to discouragement. "Throughout our history, change has often come slowly. Progress often takes time," he said. "It's never easy. And I never promised easy. Easy has never been promised to us. But we have had faith. We've had that good kind of crazy that says, 'You can't stop marching.' "
Obama continued in this vein, with knowing references to the civil rights heroes honored during the night's awards ceremony. "Even when folks are hitting you over the head, you can't stop marching. Even when they're turning the hoses on you, you can't stop," he said, building into an oratory crescendo that had the crowd cheering him on.
"With patient and firm determination, I am going to press on for jobs. I'm going to press on for equality. I'm going to press on for the sake of our children. I'm going to press on for the sake of all those families who are struggling right now. I don't have time to feel sorry for myself. I don't have time to complain. I am going to press on.
"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."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.