This week the National Policy Alliance, a coalition of 10 member organizations representing over 11,000 elected officials, sat down with President Obama in the Roosevelt Room of the White House to discuss a plethora of pressing policy issues.
The meeting, which was hosted by senior Obama advisor Valerie Jerrett, focused on job creation, judicial appointments, economic growth, education and health care. This was a break from the usual civil rights suspects from the African-American community who have had, at best, minimal access to the White House. Representing organizations that are made up of black elected officials from the local level to congress, NPA leadership provided the president with a ground level account of the challenges many African-Americans are facing in both rural and urban areas of the US.
But would this meeting address the ongoing questions related to a black agenda in the White House, or more important, a black agenda presented for the White House to respond to? With the monstrous double-digit unemployment numbers facing the black community, the state of urban schools, and the countless number of other policy issues facing the African-American community, many are wondering why there has not been a specific policy focus on blacks in the president’s first two years.
Strong criticism has been directed at the White House by black leaders, who claim the president has not done enough, if anything, for black and poor Americans. Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West have been consistently critical, going as far as entertaining the notion of supporting a progressive candidate against the president in the upcoming Democratic primary. Others, like Rev. Al Sharpton, and the NAACP’s Ben Jealous are less critical, but equally concerned about the White House’s priority list when it comes to suffering communities.
The meeting this week would not however be the silver bullet black agenda meeting that many have been waiting for. However, neither the White House, nor those black leaders in attendance would call it a waste. In fact, the president allocated more time with the group than was scheduled, spending considerable attention engaging the group on the value of the tax cut deal recently passed by the Senate. This meeting was different than previous meetings that focused on the African-American community. The priority for this meeting was local issues and the messengers were state, county and local leaders. This was the first time the NPA was able to address the president, and they used the time to, in their words, “establish a relationship that would set the environment for a proposed agenda”.
Calvin Smyre, the president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, who was at the table during the meeting said that the group was able to lay out the local realities of several pressing issues for President Obama. Jobs, education, ensuring that stimulus funding for local areas actually trickles down, and judicial appointments were at the top of the list. But when asked about a black agenda, Smyre was very direct about who’s responsibility it was to develop it. “This conversation is the starting point. Frankly, categorically we have not formed an agenda to present, that responsibility falls on elected officials and not on the White House”.
Despite that, Smyre asserts that each of the NPA member organizations and others have and will continue to work on these and other key issues. Furthermore, Smyre made clear that another take away was the fact that the President was able to receive an assessment about what is really going on in communities from those outside of the Washington Beltway.
The meeting with black leadership comes at a critical time for the president. With a looming battle with progressives, it is essential the president firm relationships with black, Hispanic, and independent voters. This was also a week that the president needed friends to support his tax deal. This group of black leaders provided that very support. Black agenda aside, let’s see what they get in return from the White House.