Facing an uproar from President Obama’s most loyal base of supporters, the White House on Thursday rejected claims that Mr. Obama stereotyped blacks when he told them to “take off your bedroom slippers” and work for his re-election.
“I have heard him make similar comments to all sorts of different groups,” said presidential press secretary Jay Carney, who fielded nearly a dozen questions from the White House press corps about Mr. Obama’s comments and his relationship with black supporters. “He’s certainly used vivid language, similarly vivid language, before a variety of audiences.”
But a search of Mr. Obama’s speeches dating back to mid-May shows that he has used the quip about bedroom slippers only one other time — on Sept. 14 at North Carolina State University, while promoting his jobs bill. About 8 percent of students at N.C. State are black.
The president stirred up the issue when he urged the predominantly black audience at the annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation awards dinner in Washington on Saturday to stop criticizing him and get to work on his re-election.
“I expect all of you to march with me and press on,” Mr. Obama said, using the cadence of a preacher. “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.”
Some prominent blacks have criticized the president’s language as racially tinged. PBS commentator Tavis Smiley, a frequent critic of Mr. Obama, has said the president would never use the same imagery with a white audience or other ethnic groups.
“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?” Mr. Smiley said.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Missouri Democrat and chairman of the CBC, has said he received numerous calls from CBC members and Obama supporters who were offended by the president’s comments.
And Crystal Wright, a conservative blogger in Washington who is black, said Mr. Obama’s language stereotyped blacks.
“The implications here that ALL Blacks are waiting for a government handout; All Blacks wear bedroom slippers and/or are sitting on the couch not working is despicable and demonstrates how out of touch the nation’s first BLACK president really is,” she wrote in a blog post. “Why would the nation’s first Black president make such an incendiary statement telling blacks to ‘take off their bedroom slippers,’ which conjures up a stereotypical image of Blacks being lazy. Can you imagine Obama saying the same thing to an all-white crowd in Iowa?”
The constituency is one that Mr. Obama cannot afford to have stay home on Election Day 2012. About 95 percent of blacks voted for him in 2008. But with black unemployment at 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 last week 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.
Asked by a reporter from MSNBC why Mr. Obama is “failing to resonate and in some cases angering some leaders in the African-American community,” Mr. Carney countered that people “from every community” have expressed their concerns about the economy.
“A lot of people are frustrated in this country, for understandable reasons, because we have unacceptably high unemployment,” Mr. Carney said, adding that’s why it is important for Congress to pass Mr. Obama’s $447 billion jobs bill.
Asked by the same reporter why the president “doesn’t seem like he’s that concerned about this criticism,” Mr. Carney replied, “There are critics from all corners when you’re president, and that’s a fact of life.”
And when a reporter for ABC News asked if the president was “sorry” for making the remark about slippers, the press secretary said, “I haven’t talked to him about that phrase.”
Another reporter who attended the CBC dinner told Mr. Carney that black leaders expressed the desire to receive “earmarks,” or specially targeted federal spending, for their districts in addition to the broader jobs bill.
“I haven’t discussed with our Legislative Affairs Office whether conversations like that have taken place,” Mr. Carney replied.