President Barack Obama used a dinner-time address to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to make an impassioned plea for health care reform, placing it in the tradition of the civil rights struggle.
Obama, who last year addressed the group as one of its members, was hailed as "our great president" by caucus chair Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). The crowd was jubilant as Obama came to the stage with first lady Michelle Obama, who Rep. Kendrick Meek introduced, saying she had "brought a new flavor to this country."
Delivering the keynote address at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Phoenix Awards to a group of about 3,000 people at a black tie dinner at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Obama gave a speech that at several points evoked his remarks at the NAACP convention in July.
The president opened with a fiery civil rights talk, ticking off racial disparities, calling for greater enforcement of civil rights laws and saying that the new White House Office of Urban affairs is working to address inequality.
Obama said that the large contingent of black community leaders and elected officials was a fulfillment of a promise and generations of struggle in a country where it took nearly 100 years before the first black members of Congress were elected, and where just a century ago lynchings were part of the American experience. He mentioned “strange fruit growing on the poplar trees,” a reference to the song about lynching written by a Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx and most famously performed by Billie Holiday.
Obama segued from civil rights into health care, ticking off what his plan calls for and borrowing a line from Martin Luther King, saying that the push called for "the fierce urgency of now."
"We have been waiting for health reform since the days of Teddy Roosevelt ... we can't wait any longer," he said as the crowd stood and clapped. "Now is the time to enact health care reform in the United States of America."
But while the House members in attendance are mostly supports of one, Obama made no mention of a public option.
Turning to the economy, Obama said that his policies had brought the economy back from the brink of disaster and those that forget how bad it was had a case of "selective memory."
Yet, he said, disparities still exist and the "economic crisis has made conditions in communities of color even worse."
"For the majority of some Americans... upward mobility, for others stagnation," he said. "That kind of inequality is unacceptable in the United States of America."
He said that eliminating inequality "will take focus and sustained effort," including making sure civil rights laws are enforced.
He also talked about the need for personal responsibility and for focusing on education, echoing his "no excuses" speech at the NAACP convention.
"Government alone cannot get our children to the promised land. Government can't attend those parent-teacher conferences, those are things a parent can do," he said. "We need to accept our responsibility as parents and community leaders. We've got to push our kids to aim higher...no excuses for mediocrity."
Throughout the week, senior administration officials attended the caucus’s annual legislative conference to tout the president's agenda.
Attorney General Eric Holder, NASA administrator Charles Bolden, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, and Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett all attended the dinner.
With 42 members, the CBC counts as its members some of the most powerful leaders on the Hill. Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) is majority whip, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich) heads the judiciary panel, and Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-NY) chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.
"Our nation is still working on its promise to overcome," Lee said. The relevance of the CBC is renewed and we are resolute in our role as the conscience of the Congress."
Obama said that the CBC would be crucial in passing health care reform and alluded to the struggles of the past, putting the present fight in focus.
"Remember all they did all so many others did to make it possible for me to be here tonight," he said, saying that the present generation has a new task. "When the need was great and the moment was hard, we did our best to perfect our union.”