WASHINGTON — In a fiery summons to an important voting bloc, President Obama told blacks on Saturday to quit crying and complaining and “put on your marching shoes” to follow him into battle for jobs and opportunity.
And though he didn’t say it directly, for a second term, too.
Obama’s speech to the annual awards dinner of the Congressional Black Caucus was his answer to increasingly vocal griping from black leaders that he’s been giving away too much in talks with Republicans — and not doing enough to fight black unemployment, which is nearly double the national average at 16.7 percent.
“It gets folks discouraged. I know. I listen to some of y’all,” Obama told an audience of some 3,000 in a darkened Washington convention center.
But he said blacks need to have faith in the future — and understand that the fight won’t be won if they don’t rally to his side.
“I need your help,” Obama said.
The president will need black turnout to match its historic 2008 levels if he’s to have a shot at winning a second term, and Saturday’s speech was a chance to speak directly to inner-city concerns.
He acknowledged blacks have suffered mightily because of the recession, and are frustrated that the downturn is taking so long to reverse. “So many people are still hurting. So many people are barely hanging on,” he said, then added: “And so many people in this city are fighting us every step of the way.”
But Obama said blacks know all too well from the civil rights struggle that the fight for what is right is never easy.
“Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes,” he said, his voice rising as applause and cheers mounted. “Shake it off. Stop complainin’. Stop grumblin’. Stop cryin’. We are going to press on. We have work to do.”
Topping the to-do list, he said, is getting Congress to the pass jobs bill he sent to Capitol Hill two weeks ago.
Obama said the package of payroll tax cuts, business tax breaks and infrastructure spending will benefit 100,000 black-owned businesses and 20 million African-American workers. Republicans have indicated they’re open to some of the tax measures — but oppose his means of paying for it: hiking taxes on top income-earners and big business.
But at times, Obama also sounded like he was discussing his own embattled tenure.
“The future rewards those who press on,” He said. “I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain. I’m going to press on.”
Caucus leaders remain fiercely protective of the nation’s first African-American president, but in recent weeks they’ve been increasingly vocal in their discontent — especially over black joblessness.
“If Bill Clinton had been in the White House and had failed to address this problem, we probably would be marching on the White House,” the caucus chairman, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, recently told McClatchy Newspapers.
Like many Democratic lawmakers, caucus members were dismayed by Obama’s concessions to the GOP during the summer’s talks on raising the government’s borrowing limit.
Cleaver famously called the compromise deal a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich.”
But Cleaver said his members also are keeping their gripes in check because “nobody wants to do anything that would empower the people who hate the president.”
Still, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., caused a stir last month by complaining that Obama’s Midwest bus tour had bypassed black districts. She told a largely black audience in Detroit that the caucus is “supportive of the president, but we’re getting tired.”
Last year, Obama addressed the same dinner and implored blacks to get out the vote in the midterm elections because Republicans were preparing to “turn back the clock.”
What followed was a Democratic rout that Obama acknowledged as a “shellacking.”
Where blacks had turned out in droves to help elect him in 2008, there was a sharp drop-off two years later.
Some 65 percent of eligible blacks voted in 2008, compared with a 2010 level that polls estimate at between 37 percent and 40 percent. Final census figures for 2010 are not yet available, and it’s worth noting off-year elections typically draw far fewer voters.
This year’s caucus speech came as Obama began cranking up grass-roots efforts across the Democratic spectrum.
It also fell on the eve of a trip to the West Coast that will combine salesmanship for the jobs plan he sent to Congress this month and re-election fundraising.
Obama was leaving Sunday morning for Seattle, where two money receptions were planned, with two more to follow in the San Francisco area.
On Monday, Obama is holding a town meeting at the California headquarters of LinkedIn, the business networking website, before going on to fundraisers in San Diego and Los Angeles and a visit Tuesday to a Denver-area high school to highlight the school renovation component of the jobs package.
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