It’s been a tough few months for President Obama, who has been the target of criticisms from his most loyal base—African-American constituents and lawmakers—who have felt like he’s not done enough to ease or even acknowledge their economic pain. But in an exclusive interview with BET News that aired Monday night, Obama finally said he understands what they’ve been experiencing and answered his critics. When asked why he has not tried to implement policy solutions that specifically target African-Americans, however, he said that’s not how America works.
“America works when all of us are pulling together and everybody is focused on making sure that every single person has opportunity. And so when we put forward a program like, for example, the health care bill, our focus is people who don’t have health care,” Obama said. “Now it turns out that the majority of folks who don’t have health care are also working families, and are disproportionately African-American and Latino, but that doesn’t mean that it’s only for them. There are a whole bunch of folks all across the country who need help. And we are going to help every single person who needs help.”
He did, however, point to measures in his jobs package that he believes will provide some aid to the African-American community, such as a summer jobs program for youth and reforms to unemployment insurance that will benefit 1.4 million African-Americans by making sure they continue to receive benefits as well as a pathway to get on-the-job training.
“I like how #ObamaAnswers the question concerning y not target only black Americans. It's about equality and helping all,” tweeted one viewer.
But not everyone has felt that way, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus who participated in a jobs fair and town hall initiative last month in some of the nation’s hardest-hit African-American communities. California Rep. Maxine Waters has been particularly vocal in calling for the Obama administration to target Black issues and concerns.
Obama said that there have been a “handful” of Black leaders who have been critical of him, and they were critical before his election. He also said that he believes that the vast majority of African-Americans understand that when the economy goes well, everyone’s circumstances improve.
“There’s always going to be somebody who’s critical of the president of the United States. That’s my job, in part, is particularly when the economy is going as badly as it is right now, people are going to have concerns. And they should,” he added. “What I think you’re seeing all across the board in every community is that when unemployment is high and people are having a tough time, then they have to feel as if there’s some hope, there’s some prospects out there. And right now, the economy has been bad for a long time. It was bad before I got elected, and it has continued to be very tough for a lot of folks.”
When Obama took office in 2009, he knew that tough times were ahead given the recession he inherited from the previous administration. Today, however, he admits he didn’t have a full appreciation for the depth of the economic crisis, but says that his administration made some “right decisions” about how to tackle it, such as bailing out the auto industry and the American Recovery Act.
“So what I would tell myself if I traveled back in time? I would say it’s going to be a long hard slog and the American people are going to feel kind of worn down after this much difficulty. But I’d also tell that less gray person to hang in there because the American people are resilient and they have good values and they care about the right stuff, and we’ll get through this,” Obama said. “I think if we had had better information, it would have been important for me to able to communicate to the American people the fact that this was going to be a long process. That we weren’t going to fix this in six months. This was not your usual recession. This was a once-in-a-generation recession. And I think that might have helped brace people for the difficulties that were to come."
In the days leading up to the interview, BET social media followers submitted questions for the president. One person wanted to know when people could expect the economy to improve.
“Right now we are in a situation where the economy is stabilized, but it’s stabilized with too high unemployment. And I think if we get this Jobs Bill passed, that’s going to make a difference right away,” he said in response to the viewer generated question. “Some of the things though that have been plaguing the African-American community for too long, those things are going to take years to change.”
After witnessing battle after battle between a bitterly divided Congress, including one taking place now that is threatening to shutter the federal government at the end of the week, many wanted to know if it’s possible to get anything passed in Washington, including the president’s jobs bill.
“We’ll get some of it through Congress. And we will just keep pounding away until we get all of it through Congress. And if we don’t get all of it through Congress, and we haven’t seen enough done to help the American people, then we’ll get a new Congress,” Obama responded.“
The president said that as he travels around the country, African-Americans offer bountiful support and he wants them to know he appreciates that support and their prayers. In addition, he said, the most important thing to him is that people know that he’s fighting for everyone and “making sure that I’m delivering on behalf of those folks who have invested so much in me.”