As President Obama began selling his new jobs package, he was pressed Wednesday from both the left and the right, with Republicans warning about ballooning deficits and black lawmakers seeking bolder action on an unemployment rate that approaches 16% for African Americans.
Partisan tensions surfaced at a private White House meeting with congressional leaders of both parties. In an unusually aggressive move, Obama opened the meeting by accusing Republicans of “rooting against” an economic recovery, according to an account provided by Republican aides.
He also complained that Republicans were “stoking fear” about actions taken in Washington, said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who attended the meeting. White House aides did not dispute the accounts.
At the same time, members of the Congressional Black Caucus chided the president for not focusing enough on the grim unemployment figures for the black community.
The White House response amounted to a rebuff: Obama’s focus is reviving the whole economy and helping all workers, not specifically African Americans, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.
After months of concentrating on healthcare and a new Afghanistan war policy, Obama has spent the last week seeking to reassure Americans that he has not lost sight of persistently high unemployment. Though the jobless rate eased last month, it is still 10% -- the highest level in a generation.
Obama’s White House meeting was his fourth event tied to the economy in the last six days. GOP lawmakers said they appreciated Obama’s invitation, but there was no consensus on how to proceed.
Republicans rejected Obama’s argument that they were making matters worse by frightening Americans.
“That’s just not the case,” Cantor said in an interview. “It’s the policies that are stoking fear.”
Criticism from the left came with a gentler touch but a clear message. Black House members reserved time in the chamber Wednesday night to call for measures to reduce the jobless rate among African Americans.
Impatience among black leaders is mounting. Hours after Obama laid out his new jobs plan Tuesday, black lawmakers noted that the first African American president was silent on ways to help minorities hit hardest by the downturn.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, released a statement quoting Obama’s campaign promise not to ignore race. She pointed to the high rate of unemployment and foreclosure in black and Latino areas. More than a quarter of black households reported being “food insecure” last year, she noted.
Lee said the caucus would offer its own proposals, including targeted job training and more direct federal hiring in black communities.
“We believe that tackling systemic inequality requires specific, concrete and targeted action,” she said. “We want to make sure unemployment comes down in every part of the country, and to do that we have to make sure the communities of color have specific resources.”
The White House indicated it would not make special accommodations for blacks.
“I don’t think the president believes that we should address only one part of the unemployment rate,” Gibbs told reporters. “The president believes that the plans that he outlined have the ability to address both the national as well as the black and the Hispanic community.”
Civil rights activists said they weren’t surprised.
“I don’t think this administration ran on a promise to deal with specific race issues, and no one should be expecting them to do that now,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. “He’s not a member of the Congressional Black Caucus anymore.”
In his meeting with lawmakers, Obama presented charts showing economic progress. Job losses dipped to 11,000 in November -- about one-tenth of what had been anticipated.
Obama has proposed a second job-creation program -- following the $787-billion stimulus bill approved in February -- that would plow money into road and bridge construction while offering tax incentives to businesses that added jobs.
The White House would not release a price tag, but estimates from congressional and administration sources point to a package that would range from $50 billion to $200 billion.