It was a speech intended to be a rousing call to arms for his 2012 re-election campaign and his jobs bill.
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.
The 2008 campaign and Obama’s historic election solidified his popularity with African-Americans — until recently, when support began to slip as the anemic economic recovery stalled out, already high black unemployment and home foreclosure rates skyrocketed, and more black families slipped below the poverty line.
Criticism intensified over the summer, fanned in part by Waters and other members of the Black Caucus who held hearings around the country to underscore black economic pain. And it seemed possible the dedication of a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall that was scheduled for the anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August would end up casting a harsh light on the sense of disappointment some blacks felt with the president.
But Hurricane Irene led to the postponement of the ceremony, and the speech Obama was scheduled to give, until Oct. 16th. And in the meantime the White House has taken pains to counter the critical story line.
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