Racial equality warrior, advocate for the poor and a no-holds-barred antagonist to her fourth president, California Rep. Maxine Waters wears controversy like a badge of honor.
“I believe in empowerment. I have a great sense of what’s unfair,” Waters told POLITICO in a recent interview. “This is what I do.”
Her first year in office, she told George H.W. Bush he was “through” as commander in chief. She declared she was “not afraid” to take on his son, George W. Bush, over the Iraq invasion. She fought so hard with Bill Clinton, a fellow Democrat, over welfare reform, AIDS research and a tough-on-crime bill that he made peace by visiting her Los Angeles district — and offered her husband an ambassadorship to the Bahamas.
But the blunt, tell-it-like-it-is criticism she has aimed at President Barack Obama may have taken Waters’s reputation — loudmouth bomb-thrower or fearless truth-teller, depending on your viewpoint — to a new level. By blasting the president for failing to do enough to ease black economic suffering during the recession, she has surfaced some slowly building grievances among African-Americans and confronted the White House with racial issues it has worked assiduously to avoid.
After Waters chaired a series of national jobs forums over the summer that in part faulted the Obama administration’s response to black unemployment, Obama responded in a high-profile speech urging black lawmakers to “stop grumbling”and fight alongside him. Waters responded with five TV hits in one day, delivering a blunt message: “I don’t know who he was talking to.”
Administration officials called Waters’s office to complain, discounted her as a perennial malcontent, and reminded reporters that Obama’s speech, which laid out accomplishments like tax credits for working families and protections from predatory lenders, drew a standing ovation from the majority-black audience. At the same time, White House surrogate Rev. Al Sharpton, an MSNBC host, publicly took Waters to task for being too hard on Obama.
But other black leaders said Waters — nicknamed “Kerosene Maxine” by her detractors — had lobbed Molotov cocktails that hit their mark. She had expressed out loud the sense of frustration that a president whose election was hailed as a crowning moment in African-Americans’ struggle for equality has not resulted in the sweeping change pioneered by a white Southern Democrat’s Great Society four decades earlier.
Black-themed political websites and talk radio exploded in debate over whether Obama was tougher on African-Americans than on Republicans and Wall Street. Meanwhile, the president’s approval rating among black voters, once solidly above 80 percent, continued to slide into the mid-70s in several polls.
Waters had done it again.
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