By Hazel Trice Edney (Editor-in-Chief, TENews Wire)
WASHINGTON — It was an evening marked by applause, Republicans and Democrats symbolically sitting together instead of across the aisles, and a message from the president of the United States that soared with hope for economic recovery, health care, education and jobs.
Still, President Obama fell slightly short of 10 points in the view of most Congressional Black Caucus members and Black leaders interviewed by the Trice Edney News Wire after the Tuesday night speech when they were asked to grade the “State of the Union” speech on a scale of one to 10.
“I give it a nine-and-a-half,” says Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). He says the president gets an “A” for giving the inspiration that was needed as the economy appears to be generally turning around. But Cleaver expressed concern about a void in specificity on what programs might be cut in order to make up for a $400 billion freeze on annual domestic spending that the president proposed to start this year and extend for the next five years.
Atlanta 5th District Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) issued a statement giving Obama high praise.
“Tonight President Barack Obama painted a powerful picture for all Americans to see,” Lewis said. “He outlined a vision that every American can rally around to help build a pathway to a stronger future for our nation. He acknowledged the bitter struggles that have battered families and individuals in the last 10 years of economic downturn and near depression. But he reminded us that, in spite of all we have suffered, we are a nation of dreamers and a nation of doers who face our challenges with the power of education, innovation, hard work and responsibility. He reminded us that when we are at our best we have made differences that have changed human history. “
The high flying rhetoric also included some harsh economic realities.
“This freeze [on domestic spending] will require painful cuts,” President Obama said. “Already, we’ve frozen the salaries of hardworking federal employees for the next two years. I’ve proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs. The Secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without.”
That one phrase, “community action programs” or CAPs, as they are formally known in cities across the nation, appears to be the wrench that caused concern among CBC members, including Cleaver.
“The Congressional Black Caucus is going to look very seriously at any of the proposed cuts on programs that we think are critical to the survival of the least of these,” he said.
Community Action Programs, founded in the mid-’70s, help thousand of elderly and low income with basic needs, such as food, financial literacy and job search assistance.
Across the crowded Statuary Hall, where members go to meet the press after the annual State of the Union, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) echoed the chairman’s sentiments.
“It’s a nine-point-five,” she said. She cited his “energy, his sense of hope and can-do spirit” as Obama’s strong points. “The president knows that he’s got a $400 million freeze on domestic spending. We’re all going to ask where and how. Americans are diverse; they are high income, middle income, low income. Then there are those who are so vulnerable that their very existence depends upon a helping hand. We’ve got to be concerned on those issues.”
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) gave the speech a six-and-a-half. Ellison gave high marks for the president’s talk about increasing jobs by rebuilding America’s infrastructure. But, Ellison said, “The stuff that he said about cuts kind of worries me. I need to know what he’s talking about. He mentions specifically programs like community action programs might have to take some cuts. Those are lifeline programs. Those are not luxury programs. These are programs that keep people subsisting. So what is he talking about?”
The president’s speech, at the mid-term of his first four-year term, was also watched closely by Black civil rights leaders.
“We applaud the president for his foresight in recognizing that we need to prepare our workforce for the jobs of the future and to be able to compete with the rest of the world,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial in a statement. He said he would continue to urge Congress to send “our limited resources to those youth and adults who have been disproportionately impacted by the recession — especially in our urban communities — by adopting the NUL’s proposals on summer jobs, reforming our workforce development system, and enacting the Urban Youth Empowerment Program.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose Rainbow PUSH Coalition has historically focused on strengthening the poor, said in an interview that he would give the speech high marks for inspiration, but it was missing a key element, he said.
“He didn’t mention the word poverty, and poverty is growing,” said Jackson. “Forty-nine million are in poverty. They work and can’t pay their rent. Poverty is a big deal. I think his assumption is that rising tides lift all boats. Wall Street’s yachts have lifted, but no one is discussing poverty.”
Still, Obama’s promise to simultaneously shore up jobs and education was a big hit with U. S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) who gave the speech a whole 10. “You can’t have the job if you don’t have the education. You can’t get the education if you’re not disciplined and you can’t get the discipline if you don’t have that family structure,” Scott said. U. S. Rep. Clyburn (D-S.C.) called the State of the Union “a great speech” and also gave it a 10 for how far Obama has brought the country.
“I think the people are now seeing who and what President Obama is. We have to give him credit for stepping up when we had an economy that was hemorrhaging 750,000 jobs a month,” Clyburn said. “So, when you’re responding to a crisis and you look at a place where you’ve never been, then it’s going to be hit and miss. “
Despite the 10, Clyburn, assistant Democratic leader, said the president’s mention of a possible cut in CAPs was “the only thing that concerns me.”
He said, “We see now, Wall Street is growing with record profits, but I’ve still got communities in my district with 20 percent unemployment.” Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who declined to give a rating, said everyone should expect cuts and should not be surprised by the president’s mention of CAPs after the across-the-board tax cuts that Obama awarded in a deal with Republicans last year.
“That’s what happens when you pass an $850 billion tax cut,” Scott said. “Everybody wants a tax cut. That’s nice. How are we going to pay for it? Now we are finding out.” Still, some CBC members praised the president for simply making hard decisions.
“I think the president hit a home run because he’s really talking about the future. If not a 10, maybe a 10 plus,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.). “This is about the 21st century.”
Edwards quickly pointed out that the president stressed his willingness to make sacrificial cuts but only of those programs that are not necessary.
“But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens,” Obama said to applause.
Democrat and Republican members intermingled their seating as a show of civility after the shooting of their colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) two weeks ago. She is still recovering and was scheduled to begin rehabilitation in a Houston hospital this week.
Houston Rep. Al Green, who gave the president a nine, said he believes in leaving “room for improvement,” but says the president deserves much credit “because he sought to bring us together. … He said it’s more than about “‘sitting together tonight. It’s about working together tomorrow.'”
Still the lingering concern held fast among members who fought long for programs such as the CAPs programs that have sustained thousands in Black communities for decades.
While giving Obama a 10 for delivery, Civil Rights icon Lewis was quick to say, “I have some concerns about cutting those programs that have brought us so far, especially during the ’60s and ’70s. It is my hope that we can find a way to root out those that are not working in a smart fashion.”
Cleaver, also an ordained minister and pastor, says he hopes the revival-like tone and atmosphere set by the president’s speech opens the door for civil negotiations.
“The president was trying to cheer up the nation. “He went ahead to say that over the past two years, the glass has appeared to be almost empty, but we’re on our way back.” Committing to work with the Administration, Cleaver said, “We’re filling the glass and I want to be a part of filling the glass. I want to see everybody get a sip. I think the president agrees with me that everybody should sip out of the glass.”