Obama And Black America

Nearly a year after taking office, the president still enjoys a high approval rating among blacks despite soaring unemployment and a recent mini-revolt by the Congressional Black Caucus. Renee Montagne talks to Juan Williams about the impact of the Obama presidency on African Americans.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Whatever else 2009 is remembered for, it will surely be recalled as the year America inaugurated its first black president and the year we got to know our first African-American first family. Joining us now to discuss how all of this has played out over the past year within the African-American community is NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And you have observed, what, six new presidents during your career? And you're not even that old. Somehow you've gone through six of them.

WILLIAMS: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What strikes you as most important about this president?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it's pretty clear that if you look at the cultural impact of President Obama, and that includes race, as you mentioned, Renee, it's a pretty tremendous leap in terms of American history and American political discourse. You've not only got a man who has tremendous ambition and you can see it in terms of the first year agenda, everything from health care to the economy to war to climate change to immigration to stem cells, but I think you also see it in terms of the cultural response. Young people very much energized by the idea of a multi-racial president, someone with the background that he has. It's a different kind of politics, a different kind of image for the President of the United States.

MONTAGNE: Polls show that President Obama is hugely popular, still, among African Americans and Hispanic Americans. Not really a big surprise, but there has been some pushback, particularly from the Congressional black caucus. How serious is that?

WILLIAMS: Well, earlier this month, Renee, ten members of the Congressional black caucus refused to join in a vote in support of the White House's financial overhaul bill to try to bring more reforms to Wall Street. And the argument there coming from members of the Congressional black caucus was that Obama favors the blue dog democrats, conservative democrats, and he has forgotten about the issues that touch the black community in this country. In fact, Emmanuel Cleaver, the Democratic black Congressman from Missouri said, you know, that right now the White House is focused on institutions that are too big to fail.

They've forgotten people who are too little to matter, especially in the black community. And what they're talking about there, Renee, is things like 15 percent black unemployment compared to 10 percent overall. But also that a quarter of all the black households in the country report that they are food insecure. Fifty percent of all the foreclosures in the United States today are taking place in the black community. So the Congressional black Caucus wants targeted efforts to help the black community.

MONTAGNE: Well, that's - does this president see the problems of African Americans as his special responsibility?

WILLIAMS: No, I don't think he does. And here, I want you to listen to something. This is an interview the president did earlier this week with April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks. Listen to him talk about this.

President BARACK OBAMA: So we have made a series of steps that make a huge difference. The only thing I cannot do is help - by law, I can't pass laws that say I'm just helping black folks. I'm the president of the entire United States.

WILLIAMS: So that answers your question. You know, does he see it as his special responsibility? No. Now if he sees himself, though, as acting to help those who are most vulnerable and most in need, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, and he said that that's going to lift up life in the black community and every community. But I think you're going to hear louder and louder voices coming from people like the Congressional black Caucus, a lot of black intellectuals who are increasingly open in saying this president is not what we hoped for.

MONTAGNE: During the campaign and after the election there was a lot of talk about President Obama being a role model. Is there any way to access anecdotally if it comes to that how this how affected the lives of African Americans, particularly young people?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's hard to quantify, but I will tell you this, that there are three big black fraternities and they have been having a summit this month in December about how to get more black men as mentors and they're using a lot of the rhetoric that has come from President Obama about how black men need to be better fathers. You're seeing lots more positive, assertive efforts to say, you know what? If Barack Obama, who came from a broken household, can do it, we can do it too. And we need to step up. But to say that there's any specific way to quantify the difference that he has made, it's very difficult.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much and Merry Christmas.

WILLIAMS: Merry Christmas, Renee. Happy new year, too.

MONTAGNE: All right. NPR's Juan Williams.

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