President Obama, who has been accused of avoiding racial issues, jumped into the lion's mouth Saturday when he made an unannounced appearance at the Congressional Black Caucus' annual Washington conference and called on his most loyal constituents to resist plans to change the course his administration has set for the nation.
Without naming the Republican Party, the president warned that his opponents want to "turn back the clock" and reverse many of the changes he has made in the first two years of his administration. "I need everybody here to go back to your neighborhoods, to go back to your workplaces, to go to the churches, and go to the barbershops and go to the beauty shops, and tell them we've got more work to do," Obama said to cheers from a black-tie audience at the Washington Convention Center. "Tell them we can't wait to organize. Tell them that the time for action is now."
With many pundits predicting that Democrats will lose control of the House and perhaps even the Senate, Obama needs to fire up black Democrats, who have continued to support him even as white liberals have expressed disappointment, and independents have indicated in polls that they would likely vote for Republicans in the fall election.
The president invoked the words of actor Ossie Davis, who, speaking at the caucus' first dinner in 1969, urged attendees to look beyond individuals. "It's not the man, it's the plan," the president told attendees. "That was true 40 years ago, and it's true today."
"We understood that during my campaign," the president told the audience, many of whom have spent the last four days attending workshops, seminars and speeches on issues that affect the African-American community. "It wasn't just about electing a black president. It was about a plan to rescue our economy and rebuild it on a new foundation. It was about giving every hardworking American a chance to join a growing middle class. It was about putting the American dream within reach for all Americans, no matter who you are, what you look like or where you come from."
The Annual Legislative Conference, put on by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the 42-member CBC, is a high point of black political activity every year. Several thousand black professionals travel to the nation's capital to ponder, debate and argue policy issues.
In his speech to the conference attendees, the president admitted that unemployment was a large issue for all Americans and has hit the black community especially hard. "This recession has taken a devastating toll on all sectors of our economy, he said. "It's hit Americans of all races, all regions and all walks of life. But as has been true with other recessions, this one came down with a particular vengeance on African-American communities."
The president acknowledged fears that discouraged Democrats — especially the blacks and young Democrats who helped put him in office — may not bother to vote in November. "It's not surprising, given the hardships that we're seeing across the land, that a lot of people may not be feeling very energized, very engaged right now," Obama said. "A lot of folks may be feeling like politics is something that they get involved with every four years when there's a presidential election, but they don't see why they should bother the rest of the time."
But the president warned, without mentioning Republicans specifically, that "the other side want to take us backward. We want to move America forward."
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root.