Obama's complicated relationship with black America

President Obama held a moment of silence for the victims of the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater during a campaign stop in Florida. Mr. Obama promised to do anything necessary to bring this "heinous crime" to justice. AP PHOTO

(CBS News) President Barack Obama's speech before the National Urban League Wednesday in New Orleans is an opportunity for the president to address his most faithful constituency: African-American voters. But the relationship between the nation's first black president and the black community is a complicated dance of devotion and disappointment.

While African-American leaders point to numerous accomplishments that benefit the black community, including the passage of the health care law and the Justice Department's aggressive actions against voter ID laws, there's a desire for Mr. Obama to do more for the black community.

Like most of the rest of the country,  black Americans have had a tough four years: the unemployment rate among blacks is 14.2 percent, much higher than the national average of 8.2 percent. Even more alarming, the jobless number for blacks younger than 20 is 39 percent. 

"People know he walked into a great crisis. At the same time, people are understandably very nervous about their own jobs, their own homes," Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told CBSNews.com in an interview last Friday. "Still, the current level of unemployment is much too high."

The president has come under harsh criticism from even his staunchest supporters for not doing more to directly benefit black Americans. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., offered this scathing attack as the president embarked on a bus tour of the Midwest last summer: "We're supportive of the president, but we're getting tired. We're getting tired. ... The unemployment is unconscionable. We don't know what the [president's] strategy is. We don't know why on this trip that he's in the United States now, he's not in any black community." 

Also in 2011, numerous black leaders demanded a meeting with the president at the White House. They presented a policy wish list to spur economic advancement that included a teen summer jobs program and job training and placement programs. Marc Morial, head of the National Urban League, attended that meeting and said he went to tell the president "there is so much more that needs to be done."

"He heard us, listened and acted," Morial said. He said the president's jobs plan, which he proposed under pressure from African-American leaders and Democrats in Congress, included five of the provisions Morial and others suggested. The legislation has been stalled in Congress.

"Do we want the president to do more?" Morial rhetorically asked. "Our organization will press this president on jobs and the economic opportunity issues."

Many in the community say it's not the policies they are concerned about, but the president's lack of leadership and that he doesn't use the bully pulpit more often to talk about the challenges plaguing the black community.

In lieu of publicly talking directly about African-Americans outside of his speeches to black organizations, he instead suggests that he's working for all of America.

"The most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period," the president said in 2009

Another issue crippling parts of black America is violent crime. In Chicago, homicides have increased 38 percent since last year. More than 250 people there, many African-American, have been killed in the first 6 months of the year, and that does not include the number injured by bullets or knives. This past weekend, 38 people were shot and 7 were killed. The president has not visited the families of the victims in Chicago or addressed the issue. He has, though, visited his hometown to fundraise.

"That he hasn't taken this opportunity" to address the crisis "is incredibly frustrating," Cathy Cohen, a University of Chicago political science professor who specializes in African-American politics, told CBSNews.com. "It's one of these moments I don't understand why he doesn't take leadership."

Philadelphia is another city plagued with violence, witnessing a 23 percent increase in homicides this year, and Philadelphia Mayor Nutter has focused his second term on reducing violent crime. He has been very blunt with the African-American community, urging black youth to shape up and telling their parents to be more responsible.

"We must be willing to have an honest conversation about the things that are holding us back as a nation and ask ourselves, 'what are we prepared to do about them?' together," he said recently. And during a speech last summer at the Mount Carmel Baptist Church, he said flash mobs have "damaged your own race" and parents need to be more than a "human ATM."

Nutter said Friday that he was reluctant to criticize Mr. Obama, saying he doesn't "advise the president," but said it would be important for the president to speak about the issue.

"The yearly death toll is enormous, is significant and needs to be addressed at a national level," Nutter said.

The president's supporters, however, including Nutter, are quick to note that he's not the president of black America but of the entire country. It's an argument those more critical of him don't dispute, but they say the president, especially the first black president, has a unique role in history that is being overshadowed by political expediency.

"I don't think there is any kind of worry about losing the black vote to [Mitt] Romney, but I think he does want to make sure he can energize that community," said Cohen.

In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama won 95 percent of the black vote, which usually overwhelmingly votes Democratic, a larger margin than any previous candidate. Possibly more important than the percentage of votes Mr. Obama received is that the number of black voters who voted increased 4.9 percent to its highest level. A 6 percent increase in voter turnout in North Carolina, for example, a state with a large black eligible voter base, was enough for him to carry the state by only .4 percent. It was the first time a Democrat has won there since 1976. 

"History writes Barack Obama's story. He rode away to the White House in 2008, I'm not sure if he can recapture that story," South Carolina state representative Bakari Sellers, an African-American Democrat considered a rising star in South Carolina politics, told CBSNews.com.

But Shelby Steele, conservative author and senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, said Tuesday the president is not concerned just with the black vote, but with the white vote and white perception.

"If whites see him spending too much time at the NAACP and at the Urban League, they won't see them as post racial and they will be alienated by that," Steele said. "On the other hand, blacks say we've been your most loyal supporters...and you are ignoring us in order to seduce whites. We're hurt by that."

"He's kind of a bound man in that regard. He's in a position that's hard to win," Steele said. "He could have a leadership role if he wanted one. He's afraid of that."

Interestingly, Mr. Obama has limited his appearances to these groups, not having addressed the NAACP since 2009 and is making a return to the National Urban League's conference Wednesday after skipping last year.

Both the president's critics and supporters point to moments of pride that have meant a great deal to African-Americans, including the speech on race he gave in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign, the speech about his grandmother after she died, also given during the campaign, his Father's Day speech calling on African-American fathers to be more active in their children's lives and the speech he gave after the death of Trayvon Martin earlier this year.

"I want to see him draw the nation's attention to these issues and I also want to see him use the resources of the presidency to address the issues," Cohen said.

As the president speaks directly to the Urban League Wednesday, he can address the issues of concern to all Americans, or he can heed the advice of some of some black leaders: Have a direct and honest discussion addressing the concerns of his most loyal constituents.

A Democratic congressional aide added in an interview with CBSNews.com that not speaking about issues important to the African-American community "ultimately may get you reelected, but is not the best thing for the country."

  • Leigh Ann Caldwell On Twitter»

    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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