Clyburn quiet while other black lawmakers criticize Obama

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 9, 2010 

WASHINGTON _ South Carolina Democratic Rep. James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, has remained silent as other black lawmakers have grown increasingly critical of President Barack Obama on issues ranging from Afghanistan and health care to job creation and broader efforts to spark the economy.

Clyburn finds himself in the middle. He's a strong supporter of the White House and a critical Obama ally in Congress. He's also a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and some of its members have been sharply critical of the president.

Already angered by Obama's refusal to target more money for minority communities hit hard by the recession, many black lawmakers oppose his escalation of the Afghanistan war and his apparent willingness to sacrifice a public option in medical insurance to win final congressional approval of a health care bill.

"The frustration levels in various minority communities are very high," Clyburn said.

Clyburn said dissatisfaction also is rising among Hispanic lawmakers and the 13 members of the Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Clyburn, who wept at Obama's election in November 2008, shares his colleagues' frustration on the economy, but he's willing to compromise on health care and to give Obama's decision to send more than 30,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan time to work.

Other prominent African-American lawmakers are less patient. Among the most critical is House of Representatives Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, the only founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus who's still in office.

Obama called Conyers to ask why he was "demeaning" him and took to the airwaves to defend himself.

"I cannot pass laws that say 'I'm just helping black folks.' I'm the president of the entire United States," Obama said in a recent interview on American Urban Radio Networks, which broadcasts to more than 300 stations aimed at black listeners.

"What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need," Obama said. "That, in turn, is going to help lift up the African-American community."

The national unemployment rate for African Americans in November was 15.6 percent, compared with 12.7 percent for Hispanics and 9.3 percent for whites.

Beyond its emotional ties to Obama as the first black president, the CBC is a crucial bloc of lawmakers for him for other reasons. All of its 43 members are Democrats, and it is among the largest caucuses in Congress.

Clyburn was a key campaign supporter of Obama, helping to persuade other Democratic "superdelegates" to back him against then-New York U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton in their 2008 primary battle.

Clyburn has been a powerful ally since Obama took office last January, coordinating House passage of his two top legislative priorities _ health care reform and a $787 billion economic-stimulus bill.

In recent weeks, Clyburn, 69, has listened as members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which he chaired in 1999 and 2000, have spoken out against Obama administration policies and actions.

Black lawmakers temporarily held up a financial regulatory measure to signal their dissatisfaction. U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of California urged her African-American colleagues to "use our power and influence," while suggesting that they block Obama's legislative initiatives if he doesn't address their demands.

Clyburn said he prefers to convey his dissatisfaction with Obama behind closed doors, taking advantage of the access his House post gives him to the president's top aides _ and to Obama himself if Clyburn insists.

"We all have our different styles," Clyburn said, contrasting his approach with that of some other black lawmakers. "I know how and when to raise issues. Usually when I raise my voice, it's not in public."

Clyburn said he speaks and visits frequently with Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of the Obamas who's now a senior White House adviser.

Clyburn said black and other minority lawmakers are upset by the Obama administration's implementation of two major economic programs _ the $700 billion bailout of banks that Congress passed in October 2008 and the $787 billion stimulus package approved last February.

The emergency bank bailout pushed by President George W. Bush was unpopular with many lawmakers, especially his fellow Republicans in Congress.

Clyburn said he helped negotiate a House deal.

Then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson agreed with black lawmakers' demands that, in exchange for their votes, some of the bailout money _ called the Troubled Asset Relief Program _ would be set aside for low-income communities through mortgage mitigation and aid to minority-owned businesses and small banks, according to Clyburn.

Paulson didn't hold up his end of the bargain, Clyburn said, and his successor under Obama, Timothy Geithner, has been either unable or unwilling to set aside the special funds.

"A lot of CBC members feel that it's being unfairly administered," Clyburn said of the bailout program.

As to how much criticism Obama deserves, Clyburn is not as tough as some of his colleagues.

He says it will take a while to turn the economy around.

"You don't want to be losing jobs at all, but you've got to stop the hemorrhaging before you can fix the problem. He took on a pretty anemic patient, called the U.S. economy, and it was bleeding profusely. We exercised the tourniquets and stopped the bleeding."

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