President Barack Obama told an annual forum on black America that his policies will make a “big difference” to African-Americans who are harder hit by the economic downturn than the rest of the nation.
"Tough times for America often mean tougher times for African Americans. This recession has been no exception," Obama said. “The unemployment rate among black Americans is a full five points higher than the rate among Americans as a whole. At the same time, we know that government cannot and will not succeed alone. It will take all of us stepping up and doing our part."
Obama skipped the State of Black America forum - the White House aides said his busy schedule required him to speak by video - but he was very much the topic of conversation at the day-long event, which features black activists, academics and elected officials.
As president, Obama has rarely singled out black issues in the way he did in his address, and he spoke directly of such topics only rarely on the campaign trail, giving an address on race only amidst a controversy about his former pastor. As a candidate he talked about the need address obesity in the black community as well as fatherhood.
But his comments Saturday stuck closely to the economy, and how his stimulus package, budget and SCHIP children's health bill would help. But he, like other speakers, stressed the need for others beside the government to step up.
Obama said the forum represents “an incredible opportunity to highlight not only the challenges facing the African American community—but also the ways in which ordinary men and women are working to meet them.”
“You have tapped into a yearning in the community to address our toughest problems instead of leaving them for another day, or year, or generation.”
“We need everyone to take responsibility for the future of our families, our communities, and our country,” he said. “So I thank you for being part of a noble effort at this defining moment," Obama said.
His comments, filmed in the White House were met with applause.
Two large photos of Obama framed the stage—his face was made up of a montage of photos of black elected officials and is the cover of Accountable, the book by event host, Tavis Smiley.
Obama passed up the event last year too - a “missed opportunity,” said Smiley. But Obama 's absence speaks to the way he has largely ignored the traditional “black leader” circuit, though he has made appearances at the NAACP annual conference, and will attend this year.
Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters, Al Sharpton, Cornel West and RNC chair Michael Steele were among this year’s panelists. Smiley, who took some heat for criticizing Obama for not showing up has called the assemblage of leaders and thinkers a “black think tank.” The event was broadcast on C-Span and held in Los Angeles.
Smiley, a television personality and activist, has turned out three best-selling books as a result of the conference proceedings. His most recent one is a kind of workbook and checklist for tracking Obama’s promises versus what he does to advance the black agenda.
"I want Obama to be a great president, I think he can be a great president, but only if we make him," Smiley said. "We the people must sure that promises made are promises kept."
Yet, speaker after speaker pushed back against Obama as the savior of the black community and instead called for personal responsibility.
“While we are waiting for those programs to trickle down to us, we are going to have to do what have to do,” said Michelle Singletary, a Washington Post financial columnist, who was on the panel with Jesse Jackson. “We have to get ourselves together.”