While President Barack Obama was on the road doing a listening bus tour, members of the Congressional Black Caucus were getting an earful in Detroit from frustrated constituents upset over our dire economic conditions. When pressed on why the CBC isn't doing more to put pressure on the president, Rep. Maxine Waters gave a candid response that they were waiting on permission from their constituents. She said these voters, often fervent supporters of the president, needed to "unleash" them, like political Kraken.
Waters said: “When YOU tell us it’s alright and you unleash us and you tell us you’re ready to have this conversation — we’re ready to have the conversation,” Waters said. “It’s alright!” — a woman in the audience loudly responded. The “conversation” Waters appeared to be referring to is a referendum and a challenge to the Obama White House on targeted help for black Americans facing high unemployment.
“We want to give the President every opportunity to show what he can do and show what he is prepared to lead on… But our people are hurting. The unemployment is unconscionable. We don’t know what the strategy is. We don’t know why — on this trip he’s on now — he’s not in any black communities. We don’t know that.”
“We’re politicians. We’re elected officials. We are trying to do the right thing and the best thing,” Waters continued. “When you let us know it’s time to let go, we’ll let go.”
As I was telling a friend and long-time support of this blog, Joe V., Rep. Waters and other CBC members are in a precarious situation where their voting public is angry, frustrated, struggling and wants action. But there is a serious political risk if members like Waters and others if they are perceived as too aggressive.
Because of the deep affection for the first black president, as Waters noted, constituents didn’t want to hear anything that remotely came close to criticizing Obama or his administration. It’s an emotional response, to be sure, especially when you recognize that those same folks agree with every knock on the president and the administration on policy grounds. But to criticize Obama was to ask for a beat-down. (Trust me, that threat extends to African American pundits who dare to say something negative.) This, in turn, caused black members of Congress to pull their punches or go mute on important issues for fear of riling up the folks back home who would view them as disloyal. Or as a friend put it to me yesterday, the relationship between Obama, black members of Congress and their constituents is like that of children of divorced parents. Congress is the mom. Their constituents are the kids. And Obama is the father who’s seen only once in a while. Mom won’t say anything bad about the father in front of the children because they’ll shout back: “Don’t talk bad about my father!”
Obama has only been in office three years. Many CBC members have been around since the Clinton Administration or longer. And many issues dragging down the African American community are systematic issues that have lingered since -- quite frankly -- forever. But when it comes to the current economic crisis, it's been at a "Depression" level for African Americans since George W. Bush's second term as president. Any critique of "Why isn't Obama doing anything?" can easily be turned around back on them and they can be asked, "What has the CBC been doing for the last 20 years?"
Is that a fair question given how complicated politics can be? Probably not. But will that get asked over and over again by those in defense of the president? Yes, indeed. As I told Joe, if they go too hard on the president, who is more popular than many of them as a whole (individually, I'm sure they're beloved in their various districts) -- they will get clowned. For all the CBC's accomplishments, many perceive the current organization as ineffectual and decadent in the same way people view the NAACP and the National Urban League. There seems to be no innovation in the fight, just a retread of old tactics -- like having a meeting, holding a boycott or having a march. Things that don't have the same bite in our age of 24-hour-news cycles and instant messaging.
The President can do some things, but all legislation goes through Congress. And that's where they are. People will ask Waters and others why the Congressional Black Caucus was so unsuccessful in pushing initiatives that would help black unemployment no matter who was in office, whether it was Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or, current White House occupant, Barack Obama. And CBC members don't want to have to answer that question because that question will set the groundwork for political rivals and challengers, leading to contested elections in what should be "safe" districts. And that will end with them possibly being booted out of office by the same people who put them there.
Also, many African Americans voters who lean Democrat would like to see Obama get a second term in hopes that without the concern of having to go through another election he will be more vigorous. Or, at a minimum, they simply don't want any of the current GOP crop to get the top spot. Even among my black conservative peers, I don't hear a lot of excitement over the current GOP crop no matter how annoyed they are with Obama. If Michele Bachmann is the nominee, they'll likely (silently) cross party lines or sit this one out. If Sarah Palin decides money isn't enough and runs as a spoiler in any capacity and even looks like she might win, they've threatened to move to Canada.
Therefore, with no real alternative, quite a few people don't want to do anything that would hamper Obama's chances at re-election.
That's why Waters can't, or any member of the CBC, get too tough. And it wouldn't do much good anyway, since Obama, despite everyone being upset all the time, still has more than 80 percent support in the African American community. Starting a black-on-black political fight would do nothing but give the press a nice narrative about Obama's strongest supporters turning on him. And even then, it's not so much about Obama, as most black people don't hate the guy, but hate the system which they feel is rigged, and Congress, which under John Boehner has become even more inept than usual.
(If I have to hear one more time Boehner talking about the "mandate" the GOP received when they took one house of Congress, ignoring the fact that people wanted to see a "Jobs" bill and to get help out of this recession and they've spent all their time holding the debt ceiling ransom and screaming about balanced budget amendments like it's 1992.)
Waters, et al, may be waiting to be "unleashed," but what they really want is for you not to vote them out if they get a little rough with the Great Hope Mongerer. And this isn't about Obama simply having a meeting with members, this is about getting an agenda through Congress. And can anyone -- the president, the CBC, the Democrats, Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid -- get anything through this Congress that is truly transformative, that is truly innovative and that is large and expansive enough to uplift the many Americans struggling in this limping economy? The answer is, hell no. We just got our credit rating lowered by Standard & Poors because House Republicans made the nation's solvency a "debateable" issue in their effort to get back the White House.
If you're willing to crash the country to just get a better shot at an election, rational governing left the building long ago. Even more disturbing, when politicians like Michele Bachmann or Texas Gov. Rick Perry STILL go around saying they wouldn't have raised the debt ceiling, and no one in the press questions them on it, it makes it seem as if the inmates are finally running the asylum in America. Things that used to be truths for us have become politicized. Our history has been revised. Reality is up for debate.
That's a far cry from the Congresses Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson dealt with. Heck. It's a far cry from the Congress President Clinton dealt with. Our political march to the right wing versus the "extreme" right wing has become a death march, all based on cynicism and power-by-any-means-you-can-achieve-it, rather than doing right by the people of this country.