President Obama dropped by unannounced at a White House African-American policy conference Wednesday, telling the crowd that “better days lie ahead.”
“Our parents have been through tougher times," Mr. Obama said. "Our grandparents have been through tougher times. We know tough times.”
“If we are persistent, if we are unified, and we remain hopeful, then we'll get through these tough times and better days lie ahead,” he continued.
Although Mr. Obama was not on the schedule for what the White House billed as the African-American Policy in Action Leadership Conference, his visit was hardly a surprise.
The White House had organized the conference, bringing together elected officials, professors, faith and civil rights leaders from across the country to meet with several White House and Cabinet officials for a series of discussions and workshops.
Many of the speakers, including White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett and domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes, discussed how the tough economy has hit the black community especially hard, and the president's efforts to protect the interests of low-income and middle-class families.
The conference also gave Mr. Obama and White House officials the chance to do some fence-mending with his most loyal base of supporters.
The president faced an uproar within the black community in late September after urging a predominantly black audience at the annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation awards dinner in Washington to stop criticizing him and “take off your bedroom slippers” and work for his re-election.
“I expect all of you to march with me and press on,” Mr. Obama said. “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.”
Several prominent members of the black community, including PBS commentator Tavis Smiley, criticized the president's language as racially tinged and stereotypical.
“How does he get away with saying this to black folk, when he would never form his lips to ever say that to any other constituency?” Smiley said at the time.
The constituency is one that Mr. Obama cannot afford to alienate in any way. About 95 percent of blacks voted for him in 2008. But with black unemployment at nearly an all-time high of 16.7 percent, there has been growing criticism among black leaders that the president’s policies aren’t helping their community.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released in mid-September showed that the percentage of blacks who have “strongly favorable” views of the president dropped from 83 percent five months ago to 58 percent now.
Mr. Obama's campaign advisers have said they are confident he will retain the same level of support from black voters next year. But the danger is that the weak economy, and remarks that offend, could keep blacks from turning out in sufficient numbers to carry Mr. Obama to another victory.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.
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