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How is Obama doing with black voters?

Black voters were a key part of Obama’s election in 2008. But now some African-American leaders are criticizing him for not doing enough.

By Staff writer / January 11, 2010

Saved by the stimulus: Judy Dunlap (left), principal of Westside Leadership Academy in Gary, Ind., stands with three of eight teachers whose jobs she was able to preserve after last year’s package passed.

John Smierciak/AP

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Washington

When Barack Obama became president nearly a year ago, he took on a mountain of problems: an economy on the brink of collapse, two foreign wars, a persistent threat of terrorism on US soil.

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But perhaps the most delicate challenge he faced – and still faces – centers on his own identity as America’s first black president. His election represented a major milestone, but certainly not an endpoint, in one of the core narratives of the American story: the battle for racial equality.

Now, embedded in the color of President Obama’s skin lie the aspirations of African- Americans, many (or most) of whom see his ascendancy to the Oval Office as a signal opportunity for Washington to tackle the persistent racial disparities in unemployment, poverty, access to healthcare, and educational performance.

In a way, Obama was bound to disappoint. Having run for president as a “postracial” candidate, touching on race only when necessary to appeal to the widest audience possible, Obama predictably has run his presidency the same way.

But that has not stopped some black leaders from voicing chagrin. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has said it’s time for civil rights leaders to start pressuring Obama.

When Obama delivered a speech on jobs last month, Rep. Barbara Lee (D) of California, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said in a statement: “While we agree with the president that support for small businesses, infrastructure investment, and green jobs is essential, we also believe that much more needs to be done, particularly for those Americans who are hurting most.”

Black unemployment, around 16 percent, is nearly double that of whites.

In mid-December, 10 members of the CBC fired a shot across the bow by boycotting a key House committee vote and threatening to drop support for new banking regulations. The walkout worked: Money for unemployed homeowners and neighborhood revitalization was added to the legislation.

Other important black voices have defended Obama. Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, a leading civil rights figure of the 1960s, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month: “He has taken a very simple position, which is a good position, I think: By helping all Americans, you help minorities.”

Another CBC member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) of Texas, has also come to Obama’s defense. In a recent interview with the Dallas Morning News, she called him a “miracle worker” in pulling the economy back from the brink.

Obama spoke forcefully on his own behalf in a Christmas week interview with American Urban Radio Networks, whose audience is heavily black. The president said that while he is prohibited by law from targeting legislation at any particular racial group, he feels he has done a lot that has benefited African-Americans, starting with the Recovery Act, which saved the jobs of teachers and firefighters, many of whom are black.

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