Barack Obama has had close ties to the African American community throughout his political career. Somewhat paradoxically, he’s often faced counterparts in the community skeptical of his unusual background, his relative centrism on the issues, and his willingness to compromise with Republicans. And so we get the latest chapter in the hot and cold romance between black America and this president:
But when President Barack Obama told a gala dinner of the Congressional Black Caucus over the weekend that it was time to “stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying” and get to work, he instead gave new ammunition to some prominent African American critics who say the nation’s first black president gets tough only when he’s talking to other black people.
Three of the most prominent of them – Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Princeton professor Cornel West and talk show host Tavis Smiley – all criticized the speech, with Smiley setting the tone with his question: “How does he get away with saying this to black folk?”
But Obama pushed back hard. In a rare, one-on-one interview with a Black Entertainment Television reporter, he disputed the idea that such criticism was widespread, insisting there have been “only a handful of African-Americans who have been critical. They were critical when I was running for president. There’s always going to be somebody who is critical of the president of the United States.”
By the middle of this week, Obama’s sharp comments, the response from critics, and the debate and discussion they provoked in the black media seemed to mark yet another chapter in a relationship with African-Americans complicated from the beginning by questions about whether a mixed-race senator born in Hawaii was “authentically black” enough to win their support.
Lest we forget, a big part of why Barack Obama won the White House and John Kerry did not had nothing to do with white swing voters. Kerry won 88 percent of black voters, but Obama did even better, surpassing 95 percent. The African American community at large remains quite loyal, but elite discontent could hurt him at the margins if it means black voters are less enthusiastic than they might have been next fall.