Less than two months after his last sit-down with the National Policy Alliance, on Tuesday President Obama met again with the group of African-American advisers. A coalition of 10 — nine of which represent black public officials, including the National Conference of Black Mayors and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, plus the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies think tank — NPA also met with Cabinet members and senior administration officials.
Countering the perception that the White House steers clear of such organizations, lest the president appear "too black," NPA additionally holds weekly phone conferences with White House advisers.
So what did they discuss with Obama on Tuesday? According to its members, roughly: "Keep on doin' what you're doin'."
"The president has established priorities, and we're here to support what he's doing," said Mayor Robert Bowser of East Orange, N.J., and head of the National Conference of Black Mayors. He was one of several NPA representatives who participated in a post-meeting media roundtable that mostly applauded Obama's efforts.
Certainly, the body acknowledged that many African-American communities are struggling, with 15.7 percent unemployment, drastic foreclosures and a crumbling infrastructure. And their overall response was to tout existing dollars from Obama-led initiatives that are designed to address such concerns — things like green-job training, prisoner re-entry programs, and increased funding for community colleges and trade schools. "We found out about a lot of programs today that we didn't know about," Bowser said.
On the matter of cuts in the president's upcoming 2012 budget, the assembled NPA members didn't sound remarkably worried about potentially adverse effects on constituents. "The president said it's going to be a tough budget year, but they will try to protect the core, most important items," said Kansas State Legislator Barbara Ballard, head of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. In fact, she stressed, he's making increased investments in clean energy and education.
To get more precise, I asked if they discussed the preview of the president's 2012 budget, provided last week by Office and Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew. Two out of the three budget-trimming ideas that Lew mentioned are for programs that disproportionately affect poor urban communities: community-development block grants, which finance activities like affordable housing and anti-poverty efforts, and community-action programs (the kind that Obama the community organizer used to work with himself).
I wondered if they, too, found it alarming that the most specific items on the chopping block so far directly aid the people that have borne the brunt of the economic crisis. They pointed out that everybody's going to have to cut something.
"Today, in the economic conditions that we find ourselves in, every community in America — every county, city, school district — is cutting back," said Webster Guillory, assessor of Orange County, Calif., and chairman of the National Organization of Black County Officials. "All Americans are participating in the suffering of cutbacks. Now, in many respects, it is affecting African Americans disproportionately … but we're not against taking a look at how we provide services."
To get a sense of the agenda, if any, that the NPA had going into their meeting, another reporter asked if they'd laid out a set of specific priorities that they don't want to see get slashed. Apparently the meeting didn't go into such details, instead focusing on the bigger picture of Obama's innovation agenda pitched in his State of the Union address.
I have to say, the post-meeting recap felt a little strange. I understand the inclination to take a productive, "we're in this together" tone of forging ahead. But with so many black folks at emergency-level economic hardship, it seems as if they missed an opportunity to agitate for unique concerns. Unlike other groups that have met with the president at the White House — such as Latino and LGBT coalitions, which have drawn their lines on precise issues — the NPA appeared to have no clear meeting agenda at all.
Absent from the media roundtable was Congressional Black Caucus Chair Emanuel Cleaver. Though he attended the meetings with President Obama and his Cabinet officials, he skipped the follow-up chat and released a statement instead. His take was noticeably different.
"We had fruitful conversations on job creation and the devastating impact the economy has had on the African American community," Cleaver wrote. "Over 15.7% of African Americans are out of work and that is unacceptable. We remain committed to working with the president to ensure that our community has equal access to opportunities.
"I personally expressed my concern to President Obama on the pending cuts to Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which provides funding for local governments to carry out a wide range of community development activities ranging from housing to economic development and public service. I believe that this is a time when we should increase funding for CDBG, not cut it.
"Our community continues to suffer tremendously from the recession, and we will be one of the last to recover. There is no fairness to rebuilding our economy on the backs of Americans who can least afford it."
Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root.