WASHINGTON — As the debate over jobs turns into the latest political tug-of-war, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri walks a careful but candid line.
As chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, he has been at odds with President Barack Obama over his administration's response to the soaring unemployment rate in the African-American community.
Nearing 17 percent, joblessness among blacks is at a three-decade high and almost twice the size of the overall unemployment rate. The black caucus wants the president to do more.
But the group's efforts are freighted with political sensitivities, given Obama's unique role as the first African-American occupant of the White House and the sometimes untethered animosity that his election has triggered.
"If (former President) Bill Clinton had been in the White House and had failed to address this problem, we probably would be marching on the White House," Cleaver said. "There is a less-volatile reaction in the CBC because nobody wants to do anything that would empower the people who hate the president."
The black caucus has 43 members who come from nearly two dozen states. Its concerns about black unemployment are not Cleaver's only frustration these days.
One member of the caucus, Democratic Rep. Andre Carson of Indiana, recently said that tea party members of Congress "would love to see you and me ... hanging on a tree." Another, Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California, told a community meeting that the tea party "can go straight to hell."
Relations between the black caucus and the tea party always have been tense. During the health care debate, black lawmakers said that angry tea party protesters outside the Capitol called them racial epithets. Cleaver said he was spat upon.
Carson apologized for his remarks. He said he was speaking "figuratively," because tea party-backed cuts in social programs would "take us back 50 to 60 years." Waters always has been one of the group's most outspoken members and has been vocal with her concerns about Obama's response to black unemployment.
Meanwhile, Rep. Allen West of Florida, the group's only Republican member and a tea party ally, threatened to bolt over the Carson controversy. Cleaver helped persuade him to stay.
"It's tough," Cleaver said. "I'm chairing a group of people who are former mayors and state senators and judges. I'm trying to develop a very aggressive agenda. But Maxine Waters represents central Los Angeles first and she has to represent her constituents first and she's going to say things in order to represent them."
As a former two-term mayor of Kansas City, the 66-year-old Cleaver knows something about the minefield of special interest politics. He also is a Methodist minister who still occasionally takes to the pulpit on Sundays when he is home.
In Congress since 2003, he has friends on both sides of the aisle and started the "Civility Caucus" several years ago to combat the deterioration of political etiquette in the House. It has nine members.
"He is a not a fire breather, that's not his style, and I don't think he is, or for that matter, the caucus is genuinely angry at Obama," said David Bositis, an expert on voting rights and black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "I think they know that Obama is doing everything he can."
Cleaver is a lifelong Democrat who prizes political loyalty, and the black unemployment dilemma has put him and the group he leads in the awkward position of criticizing the policies of a president they admire, but not the president himself.
"It's not personal," Cleaver said. "They're attacking his policies, or lack thereof, with regard to this gigantic unemployment problem among African-Americans. If we can't criticize a black president, then it's all over."
Indeed, when lawmakers swarmed around Obama as he was leaving the House of Representatives chamber following his recent speech on jobs, caucus members were in the crush, eager for a handshake, a pat on the shoulder or an autograph.
"This is an unprecedented circumstance where an African-American president who is an iconic, heroic figure enjoys a status with African-Americans that no one since Martin Luther King has enjoyed," said former congressman Artur Davis of Alabama, who was a member of the black caucus until leaving office a year ago.
White House spokesman Kevin Lewis said that Obama shares the caucus's concerns and has pushed for programs to address them. He said that the unemployment insurance extension in the president's jobs bill, which caucus members have applauded, would help 1.4 million African-Americans, and his proposed payroll tax cut would help 20 million.
Lewis said Obama, who belonged to the caucus when he was a senator, has a good relationship with the group and will speak at its annual dinner next week.
Caucus member and Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland said that despite Cleaver's "solemn and respectful" manner, he displays a hardnosed sense of realpolitik about the group's role.
"The chairman always balances the fact that whether it is this president or any other, the White House has one role to play and members of Congress, particularly members of the CBC, have another," she said. "While sometimes there are parallel interests, there aren't always."
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