President Obama’s address at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Phoenix Awards Saturday night was meant to be a rousing, campaign-style rallying call for a gathering of his most loyal Democratic supporters. He challenged this body of lawmakers to, instead of criticizing his administration’s policy approach, join him in the fight to push his agenda. But after the applause faded, and the festivities came to an end, attendees were abuzz with commentary.
The president started by laying out the policies his administration has put forth to directly benefit the Black community. But one portion of his speech raised the most eyebrows, leaving a flurry of debate in its wake. He said, “I expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling. Stop crying.”
The first Black American president’s demeanor before the majority African-American audience was uncharacteristically candid and understandably familiar. But it’s also clear how his words felt more like a fiery rebuke to many in the room.
I, for one, bristled when I heard the statement about taking off bedrooms slippers. I knew that the imagery of people in some state of slumber during these tough economic times would be fodder for debate and analysis for days to come. If you talk to any of the chronically unemployed and underemployed, they will tell you that the struggle to stay afloat has given them few opportunities to find peace and rest.
I understand that, because the president was speaking to a group with whom he shares a direct connection, he may not have seen the need to mince his words. He was direct and commanding, and ultimately presidential. This is precisely the kind of bravado many believe was absent when the Bush tax cuts were being debated, or when the debt-ceiling crisis was in full swing. Where was this Obama then, and why was now the time to unveil this newfound forcefulness?
After Obama’s call for the CBC — and African-Americans, by extension — to do more and complain less, Rep. Maxine Waters of California has come forward with her own take-away. This morning she told CBS’ Early Show, "I found that language a bit curious because the president spoke to the Hispanic Caucus, and certainly they're pushing him on immigration ... he certainly didn't tell them to stop complaining," she said. "And he would never say that to the gay and lesbian community, who really pushed him on Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Obama ended his speech by telling the crowd, “We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do.” But with a nearly 17% Black unemployment rate, it’s clear that finding work is now harder than ever.
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(Photo: AP Photo/Earl Gibson III)