WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is telling the nation's oldest civil rights organization that government, families and neighborhoods must work together to improve their communities.
Obama also planned to urge young people to aspire to surpass their role models and resist the lure of mediocrity during a speech Thursday to the NAACP. White House aides said the president did not intend to introduce new programs or policy, instead striking an inspirational tone on the 100th birthday of the civil rights groups.
Obama, the first black president, plans to take a restrained tone during his evening remarks in lieu of a raucous celebration of his history-making campaign, officials said before he flew to New York. White House aides sought to play down the expectations of the speech, the first so directly linked with race since Obama took office.
"I think the first speech to black America, the first speech to white America, the first speech to America was the inaugural address," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Wednesday.
Implicit in the appearance, Obama is seeking the backing of the powerful NAACP and its members for his ambitious domestic agenda. For all their shared interests, White House aides cautioned that the group's leadership had not guaranteed its support of all of Obama's priorities.
"We will be the people at the end of the day who help make him do what he knows he should do. We will help create the room for (Obama) to fulfill, I think, his own aspirations for his presidency," NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said earlier this year.
"If he aspires to be the next Abraham Lincoln, I aspire to be his Frederick Douglass," Jealous said, referring to the slave-turned-abolitionist who pressed a cautious Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
Every president since 1909 has visited the NAACP at least once, although some more frequently than others. President George W. Bush skipped the first five meetings before eventually addressing the group in 2006. For Obama, skipping his first invitation and the 100th anniversary was not an option.
White House aides said Obama's speech would celebrate the organization's history and briefly touch on the debate about what the NAACP's next century should bring.
Jealous has pushed his organization to expand its civil rights work beyond black causes to broader human rights. Some members of his organization have resisted, arguing that much work remains to create racial equality in this country.
"The president being black gives us no advantage," Jealous said earlier this year.
"Our agenda as we head into our second century as a civil rights organization is also to revive our legacy as a human rights organization," he said.
White House aides cautioned that Obama wouldn't wade too deeply into those decisions, aware his role was not to dictate the organization's mission but to celebrate it. Instead, he would seek to reinforce the early pieces of an urban agenda he outlined Monday.
"I think black America has watched this president work on the economy," Gibbs said. "I think black America has watched this president work on health care — an issue of great concern — (and) education."