For Obama, Strained Relationship With Blacks, Hispanics?

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President Obama recently said "stop complaining" in a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus, and faced tough questions from Latino journalists about the lack of progress on comprehensive immigration reform. Meanwhile, GOP presidential candidates are confronting doubts and dissent within their own ranks. Michel Martin discusses the latest politics with journalism professor Cynthia Tucker, U.S. News and World Report's Mary Kate Cary and Voto Latino's Maria Teresa Kumar.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll hear from Gospel music legend Andrae Crouch, and we'll get some fresh perspectives on the week's news from the guys in the Barbershop.

But first, we're going to dig into some of this week's big political stories. President Obama has been reaching out to and getting an earful from some of the key constituencies that helped him to victory in 2008, African-American and Latino Democrats.

Unemployment is high in those groups. Progress and immigration reform has stalled and other political leaders in those groups have been getting restless. So, will that translate into a lack of enthusiasm in the grassroots in the upcoming election or maybe not?

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, the ground seems to be shifting among the presidential hopefuls. The political novice Herman Cain scored an upset win in Saturday's straw poll in Florida, which has raised questions about whether the momentum behind Texas Governor Rick Perry has cooled. And now, at least one poll shows former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney back in the lead for the Republican nomination.

We wanted to talk about all this, so we've called upon three trusted political observers. Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Maria Teresa Kumar is the executive director of Voto Latino. That's a nonpartisan organization that encourages Latinos to be civically engaged. And Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She's currently professor of journalism at the University of Georgia. They're all here with me in Washington. Ladies, welcome back.

MARY KATE CARY: Thank you.

MARIA TERESA KUMAR: Thank you.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So, let's just start with this whole thing, Cynthia, about the tension - if that's what we should call it - between President Obama and his critics particularly in the African-American and Latino communities. Last week, the president made headlines last Saturday night when he addressed the Black Caucus - the Congressional Black Caucus. They were having their annual legislative weekend. And let's play a short clip of what the president had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

President BARACK OBAMA: Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes. Shake if off, stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We've got work to do.

MARTIN: People who were there - so the president, you know, standing ovation, thunderous applause from the, you know, more than 2,000 people there. But after that, some grumbling, like, here's South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn. He's a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He was talking with my colleague Michele Norris and this is what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

JAMES CLYBURN: When I heard it I cringed because I kind of anticipated that so much of what came in the first part of the speech would get lost and people would be hanging onto those words, though I'm of the opinion that it is a little bit unusual for people to believe that any one segment is going to be 100 percent. But it (unintelligible) ran in 2008, he did not have 100 percent of the black vote.

MARTIN: Well, Cynthia, what did you make of the president's remarks? I'm interested in how you reacted to them.

TUCKER: Well, Michel, I wasn't there, but I watched the entire speech on you tube later because I was curious about the controversy that's developed. And let me say that you just played the one segment that has been controversial and those were his remarks at the very end and they were apparently extemporaneous. Nothing else in the entire speech...

MARTIN: Which means he meant it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: Nothing...

MARTIN: What he really thinks.

TUCKER: Nothing else in the entire speech was controversial, and I heard it very differently. I heard those remarks as in keeping with the rest of the speech, which was a call to arms to the Congressional Black Caucus, not to average black voters saying stop your crying, stop your complaining if your house has been foreclosed on. But he had been speaking to the Congressional Black Caucus about the things that had been accomplished together.

He talked about the Republican opposition to his jobs bill. And at the very end he said, we're going to press on. I talked to the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Emanuel Cleaver, yesterday. He said much of what James Clyburn said. He said he thought it was unfortunate that the president made those remarks at the very end. But he wasn't offended because he took the entire speech in context.

Having said all of that, let me say that I think this is one of those Washington-based controversies that will pass very quickly. By this time next year, very few people will remember this. And overall, while black voters like many of the president's supporters are not quite as supportive as they were four years ago, three years ago, largely they still approve of the president.

MARTIN: Well, two thoughts, though, occurred to me. And, Maria Teresa, I'm going to turn to you next. Is this about his speech to black political elites or is he talking to black grassroots voters? So, that's the question. But the other point that was made here is that some were complaining that the president takes on a scolding tone when he's only talking to African-Americans.

And they say, well, I don't hear him talking that way to other groups, which brings me to Wednesday when the president sat down with a group of Latino journalists. And he was asked some pointed questions about why he hasn't done more to fight for comprehensive immigration reform, in their view. And this is how he responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: This notion that somehow I can just change the laws unilaterally is just not true. We are doing everything we can administratively. But the fact of the matter is, there are laws on the books that I have to enforce. And I think that there's been a great disservice done to the cause of getting the DREAM Act passed and getting comprehensive immigration by perpetrating the notion that somehow by myself I can go and do these things.

MARTIN: A little slap on the hand there, too, I would say, Maria Teresa Kumar. How do you respond or how did you interpret the president's remarks? And how are they being interpreted more broadly?

KUMAR: Well, I think it's one thing to say my power of authority is limited as president of the United States. OK. But I think the problem is that, under his administration, he's had the record number of deportations. And he can have a say. And it's true. If you talk about, who is this audience? Is it the elite of the Latino's or is it his voting public?

Perfect example, two weeks ago, they had the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. The president came, Michelle Obama came, addressed the crowd. Standing ovation by the people that were sitting down having dinner. The servers, also Latino, had a very different reaction, because they're the ones unfortunately that are seeing they're - losing their wages. They're the ones that are struggling losing their jobs.

So, it's a - there is a disconnect. And I think that's where the administration really has to sort of get into campaign mode. And I think that's exactly what was happening during the Congressional Black Caucus is that all of a sudden, we, for the very first time, are seeing the president leave kind of this head of state position and moving more into we have to start fighting.

It's more of that gritty area whether you agree or not with how his message was. It was more of we have to roll up our sleeves and start fighting. And I think that's what the American people are actually looking for at the same time. They're looking for that candidate that is basically saying, you know what, there's a lot of work to do.

MARTIN: We're talking about this week's political news with Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino; Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report; and Cynthia Tucker, University of Georgia journalism professor and Pulitzer Prize winner.

Mary Kate, I think the question for Republicans would be is there sufficient discontent here among these two key voting blocks that there's an opening for Republicans. And do the Republicans have a message that would appeal to those who are discontent?

CARY: Oh, I think there's a huge opening. There's a CNN poll that came out just this morning: How would you rate the economic conditions in the country today? Ten percent said good, 90 percent said poor. First of all, you wonder who the 10 percent are. I think it's all members of Congress. But anyway, that just cuts across all demographics when you add that to right track, wrong numbers, being, you know, upside down now for two years. The president's approval ratings being so low.

I think there's a battle for every soul. I think the economic discontent is wreaking havoc with traditional party ID, and I think it cedes why we now have 40 percent of the electorate identifying themselves as independent voters. I think there's a huge opening for Republicans.

MARTIN: Maria Teresa, particularly one might argue, particularly with Latinos. Wouldn't you argue because Latinos have demonstrated a willingness to be a swing vote in the current environment that African-Americans have not?

KUMAR: I mean, they're definitely a swing vote, but I can share with you that the Republican Party has done an incredible job of making sure of turning off Latino voters because of the tone of immigration.

And you're seeing - voter rights is very stringent. Two things. I mean, the Alabama law is a perfect example where, all of a sudden, just by looking undocumented, you're going to be asked for your papers. That sends a signal that Republicans think that Latinos are less American than others, number one.

But, number two, what you're also finding is that the Republicans realize that they have a Latino problem. So they're passing very aggressive voter ID laws that are going to disproportionately affect African-Americans, Latinos and youth, basically individuals that together collectively helps bring Obama to the White House.

MARTIN: You think that that's a strategy? You think that's a strategy? In lieu of having policy positions that would appeal to these voters, you think it's like a deliberate strategy to pass these laws to make it difficult for these voters to participate?

KUMAR: I think, basically - I think that what happens is that the Republican Party basically took a step back and said, uh-oh, we're a little bit in trouble because we...

CARY: Oh, I...

MARTIN: Let her finish and then you can jump in.

KUMAR: We're a little bit in trouble because we've basically alienated a voting block that we didn't realize all of a sudden has appeared in the South. And this is also through the census. So all of a sudden, the South has actually gained 11 congressional seats because of the boom, in large part, of the Latino vote.

The growth in Texas alone is a perfect example, 2.5 congressional seats is because of the Latino boom, 0.5 population-wise is of African-Americans that were displaced by Katrina. Those are huge numbers. But if you realize that you have a bit of a Latino problem because of how aggressive you've gone against undocumented and the tone of it, then all of a sudden, you're saying, I need to bide my time for at least one or two election cycles until I can fix this. How do you, you know, bide your time? You pass very aggressive voter ID laws.

MARTIN: Mary Kate?

CARY: I wrote a column on this. And when you look at what is a very aggressive voter ID law, my understanding is you have to show a photo ID. And I think, in modern life right now, I can't get into office buildings for business meetings without showing a photo ID. I can't buy a plane ticket without a photo ID. I don't think asking for a photo ID is an aggressive Jim Crow...

TUCKER: No.

MARTIN: OK. Well, Cynthia Tucker wishes to jump in here.

TUCKER: I couldn't disagree with Mary Kate more.

MARTIN: We'll tell you, she's from the South and...

TUCKER: I'm from the South and I have been writing about voter ID laws for five or six years now, because one of the country's first harsh voter ID laws was passed in Georgia. And let me say this goes well beyond the matter of a simple photo ID.

To keep out some young voters, Republicans in some states have ruled out your college ID. You can't use your college ID. Furthermore, it's not just simple showing identification. In some states, Republicans are now cutting back early voting days. Republicans used to love early voting because they figured it was used mostly by middle class voters who supported Republicans.

Then in 2008, a lot of Obama supporters voted early. So guess what, Republicans in several states, including Georgia, have now said: Well, you know what, we're going to cut back that early voting. So this is clearly a tactic designed to just what Maria Teresa said.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we're going to continue this conversation with our seasoned but very civil political observers. We appreciate that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: Of course.

MARTIN: Maria Teresa Kumar, Mary Kate Cary and Cynthia Tucker. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, she's been called the mother of hip-hop, Sylvia Robinson. She died yesterday and we'll pay tribute to her in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to continue our weekly political conversation with Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report, also former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino. That's the nonpartisan organization that encourages Latinos to be civically engaged. And Cynthia Tucker, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Georgia.

You know, before the break we were talking about whether both political parties are really making an effort to appeal particularly to Latinos who have demonstrated a willingness to be a swing vote. And we were talking about whether there's an opening for Republicans.

So then, let's talk about Rick Perry. On the one hand, conservatives criticizing him for supporting in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and they're also criticizing him for his position regarding the HPV vaccine. So who knows him? Do you know him at all?

TUCKER: I don't know him. I have been spending a lot of time in Texas because we're actually looking. We see an opening. And I think it's taking a step back with Rick Perry and, basically - the Republicans right now, the Tea Party, they're very much with these immigrations laws, basically saying: Look, the federal government isn't doing anything, so we're going to make our laws. And what about state rights? State rights trump everything.

But then, all of a sudden, you have Rick Perry, who basically says: OK. In my state, we're going to provide in-state tuition for undocumenteds and then there's an uproar among the conservative party. But that's state's rights.

So right now, what they're trying to do is they're trying to have it both ways. And I think that's where the challenge is going to come in when you're going to go more on the national stage.

MARTIN: But, you know, we say people are trying to have it both ways when we don't like them. When we like them, they say they have nuance.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KUMAR: A balanced approach.

MARTIN: A balanced approach. Mary Kate, you know, the other interesting thing about Rick Perry is that the governor's wife, Anita Perry, has suddenly become the subject of a couple of profiles, people pointing out her influence on his politics. What do you make of that?

CARY: Well, here's what we learned. I'm not from Texas, so Anita Perry is new to me this week. Longest-serving first lady in Texas, originally trained as a nurse and very passionate about women and children's health. She had some opinions about HPV vaccine and expressed this to him. And, on one hand, the people to his left can say: Wow, he's actually pretty open-minded. He was open to suggestion. People to his right can say: Well, it was his wife. It wasn't really him.

So he can sort of have it both ways and it actually is kind of an asset, I think. He looks enlightened, as we're saying, balanced, and yet at the same time, came out what, you know, I assume we all think is probably the right side of this issue.

MARTIN: Well, it's interesting. The HPV vaccine and for those who don't recall, it is a vaccine that prevents some forms of cervical cancer and it's been controversial because, on the one hand, it requires a number of shots and it has to be done during adolescence to be maximally effective. But what is interesting is that he's taken such a minimalist position around government involvement in people's lives in other areas except for this.

CARY: Right, right. And the interesting thing, too, about this is the Michele Bachmann angle of her attacking him on this. You know, I am a mother of teenage girls and struggled with this decision when they were younger because the vaccine was so new. And there was a legitimate thing - is this thing really safe?

But once you got past that decision, I think she was right to criticize him on doing it as an executive order and not going through the legislature when it was somewhat controversial. Where she overreached was anecdotal, unsupported accusations that this somehow causes mental retardation. And that sort of backfired on her.

MARTIN: We're talking about this week's political news with Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report, Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino, and Cynthia Tucker, University of Georgia journalism professor and Pulitzer Prize winner.

We were, again, talking about the whole question of swing voters and whether the parties are actually interested in appealing to minority voters, whether both parties are actually interested in competing for the votes. Just want to raise this interesting point. A FOX News poll out this week has Herman Cain leapfrogging to the top tier of candidates and, at the same time, making these controversial remarks about black voters. I'll play that clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIP)

HERMAN CAIN: Many African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view. I have received some of that same vitriol simply because I am running for the Republican nomination as a conservative. So it's just brainwashing and people not being open-minded.

MARTIN: This is one of those where, Cynthia, I just feel like your head's about to explode right off your neck. Tell us why.

TUCKER: It is. It is so condescending for Herman Cain to suggest that black voters do not have the sense to look at each party's platforms, policies and tone, quite frankly, and decide which party better represents their interests. And I would suggest that a black man running for high office should be especially sensitive to this notion that black voters as a block don't have good sense.

MARTIN: Can I just say one thing? You remember those comments that President Obama made in the 2008 election where he was recorded by a blogger who did not disclose her identity? It was at a fundraiser that was supposed to be closed press where he talked about voters who cling to their guns and their religion.

TUCKER: Guns and religion.

MARTIN: And isn't that something that people do? They just sort of imply that it couldn't possibly be the case that you wouldn't love me. It's got to be that you're brainwashed if you don't love me. But it is curious to me that this...

TUCKER: Well, one of the things that is true about Herman Cain is that he has been a businessman. But what he has done for the last several years is be a conservative radio talk show host. And in that forum, you are encouraged to say the most provocative, the most outrageous things.

But when you start running for the Republican nomination for the presidency, some impulse control has to kick in. And you have to learn not to say the most provocative, the most outrageous things. And he hasn't switched off.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, before I let you go, I'm dying to know, what's your assessment of the race right now?

CARY: Yes. When you asked me about the state of play of the Republican field, I've been likening it to "The Dating Game" back in the '70s, where you had the three bachelorettes. The clock is running down and we're going to have to make a choice by the end of the show. And what we're hoping for, if you will recall, is they used to have the secret Tom Selleck, who sometimes would pop out and you'd have some celebrity back there that the bachelorettes didn't know was back there, you know.

And so, I think we're all hoping for some kind of secret Tom Selleck to come forward who can unite the party, be a unifying figure that we can all sort of get behind. And we can't see behind the curtain yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KUMAR: We're waiting.

CARY: The bachelorettes are waiting here.

MARTIN: Well, that sums up our situation perfectly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia. And Maria Teresa Kumar is the executive director of Voto Latino. That's a nonpartisan organization that encourages Latinos to be civically engaged. They were all here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Thank you all so much.

KUMAR: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thank you, Michel.

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