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D.C. angry at budget deal, Obama
By: Joe Williams
April 17, 2011 06:59 AM EDT

Ever since President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans reached an 11th hour agreement to keep from shutting down the federal government, interim Democratic National Committee chairwoman and staunch White House defender Donna Brazile has been on the attack, using her Twitter account to blast what she calls a “shameful” deal.

Unlike other liberals, however, it wasn’t only the $33 billion in spending cuts that set off Brazile. She’s furious about an agreement in the deal allowing Republicans to stop the District of Columbia’s funding of abortions for poor women and forcing it to revive a private-school voucher program that city officials had ended. She and other “taxpaying residents of the District of Columbia have every right to be upset at this new deal,” Brazile wrote.

Yet while her anger was carefully directed at the GOP for imposing its social agenda on a majority-black city — her city, she tweeted — other
African Americans blame someone else: Obama.

“We have really found a great disappointment in President Obama,” said Anise Jenkins, president of Stand Up for Democracy, which advocates for the District’s long-time goal — statehood. “That he would use us as a bargaining chip to resolve this issue with the budget and the Republican threats, we find very disappointing — I’m extremely disappointed. I hope he got the message that we don’t want to be used again.”

“The discontent out there is pretty widespread,” the District’s nonvoting House delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, said, describing the anger among Washington residents. Having voted for Obama in record numbers, she added, “they expected better of him.”

But like Brazile, who did not respond to requests for an interview, Norton is a steadfast Obama backer and was tactful in her criticism of the president. Even Washington Mayor Vincent Gray — who was
arrested while protesting the budget deal but considers himself a White House ally — also stopped well short of outright blaming the president.

“I want him to stand up for the rights of all Americans, and that includes the 600,000 people who live in the District of Columbia,” Gray said Friday in a radio interview.

The measured reactions of black elected officials to Obama’s role in sacrificing the District aren’t surprising given that Washington is a majority black city and African Americans overall strongly support the president. After the deal was announced, the White House emphasized the president believes in self-governance for D.C. and doesn’t like the policy riders; nevertheless, the move was among the “hard choices” involved in tough, high-stakes negotiations.

Obama himself reportedly told House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that he’d “give” the District-related riders to the GOP, “but I’m not happy about it.”

But his decision to sacrifice Washington — considered the political heart of black America — to close the deal with Republicans revived the ugly slam-dance of politics, power and race that has dominated the city’s modern history.

Originally set up as a constitutionally chartered independent seat of national government under congressional control, the District has always been subject to interference from Capitol Hill — including oversight by House committees dominated at times by heavy-handed white Southern Democrats. As the black population grew and its politics tilted to the left, clashes with the segregationist-minded “Dixiecrats” established the deep racial overtones still present in the city’s relationship with the federal government.

“There have been decades and decades of neglect and underdevelopment,” said Kate Masur, a Northwestern University history professor who has studied the District. “It’s just a difficult and complicated issue.”

After decades of fighting for autonomy, Washington was granted a measure of self-governance in the 1970s when it won “home rule”: the right to vote for a mayor and city council, as well as the ability to decide its own affairs and, ultimately, the presidential vote.

But it still does not have a voting representative in the House or representation in the Senate, despite paying federal taxes, and D.C. has to do what Congress tells it tobecause lawmakers control the city’s budget.

While Democrats have been somewhat benign toward the steadfastly liberal District when they’ve held the House majority, Republicans in power haven’t hesitated to force conservative social policies on the city, particularly regarding issues like gun control, abortion and school choice.

Washington’s fate “has a lot to do with the GOP social agenda,” Masur said. “We’ve seen that over and over again.”

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama pledged to back the District’s push for full voting rights; Jenkins recalled a fleeting conversation with him at an American University campaign rally featuring the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

“I asked [Obama], ‘Do you support statehood?’” Jenkins said. “He said, ‘I strongly support D.C. statehood.’ There was no equivocation. He was there with Sen. Kennedy. Now, I don’t see any signs” of his commitment to Washington.

Complaints that Obama is now complicit in a long, racially tinged history of Congress meddling in the city’s affairs, however, echo more general statements that he hasn’t touched stubborn problems in the African American community — including an unemployment rate that’s more than twice the national average, the disproportionate impact of the housing collapse on minority communities and the lingering education achievement gap between black and white children.

Despite voting in record numbers to make him the nation’s first black president, critics argue that Obama has neglected black America even though he depends on their votes to stay in the White House.

“It’s not just President Obama but it’s the whole [White House] team,” Cornel West, a Princeton University professor, activist and one of Obama’s most vocal antagonists, told POLITICO. “They just tend to keep distance from black folk, politically,” until election time; “then they come running back.”

“There’s too much social misery out there, man. The last thing we need is a weak and feeble reaction to the right wing,” West continued. When it comes to advocating for the poor and minorities, he added, “I just haven’t seen the kind of backbone; I just haven’t seen the real spine, not just at the level of rhetoric, but in execution.”

Obama’s black critics, including West, are clear in saying they supported the president in 2008, still support him and want him to succeed. Nevertheless, the deal with Republicans inflamed a deep-seated, if seldom-expressed, discontent with the president.

Poll numbers reflect a measure of dissatisfaction: Obama’s rock-solid approval rating among African Americans slipped five percentage points to 85 percent last month, according to a new Gallup poll — the lowest it’s been since his inauguration three years ago. But the largely hidden fault lines came into sharp relief on MSNBC last Sunday when West confronted the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network during a panel discussion on black issues.

Shouting and pointing past host Ed Schultz, the ministers engaged in a verbal brawl about the president: Sharpton argued that Obama can’t be expected to solve the problems of African Americans himself, and West declared that the president is more concerned with protecting “Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats” than helping the poor and dispossessed.

A clip of the heated confrontation was posted on several African-American websites and circulated among the black Twitterati.

Sharpton, who recently hosted Obama in New York at a conference of the National Action Network, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the treatment of the District, decrying the Republicans’ “social experiment” foisted on the city.

He told POLITICO he questions whether the White House mounted an “aggressive” fight against the abortion and school vouchers policy riders, adding, “I have no problem holding the president accountable” for it and other concerns of the black community.

While vowing to bring national attention to Washington’s plight, he carefully avoided blaming Obama. But said he understands why others might not be as understanding, adding, “We need to have that discussion.”

But West was unmoved, pointing to Obama’s failure to tackle juvenile justice reform, his deal to extend the Bush-era upper-income tax cuts and the administration’s hair-trigger firing of Shirley Sherrod, a black Agriculture Department employee who was dismissed after a videotape surfaced showing her apparently making racially inflammatory remarks. The videotape was later discredited, and the White House apologized, but West said the damage had already been done to Sherrod and the black community.

“We could just go on and on,” West said, dismissing as “hypersensitive” Obama’s apparent reluctance to being seen by white moderate voters as a strong advocate for black people. “That’s the kind of moral outrage I have, and it’s not the kind of thing that will in any way be appeased by one speech.”

Back in Washington, black political figures such as Gray and Norton are walking a fine line between channeling the anger of their constituents and absolving Obama of blame.

A few days after his arrest, Gray hit the local airwaves, urging the president to “stand up” for his city; Norton, who has represented Washington in Congress for 20 years, wants her constituents to follow Gray’s lead and hit the streets in protest. Anger at the deal, she told POLITICO, was “boiling over everywhere I went” in the city.

“We’re giving politicians in our own party a pass,” including the president, if Washington residents don’t speak up, Norton said. But she emphasized that Republicans who pushed for the deal “are the real villains in this.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, sounded a similar theme: While acknowledging that Obama can do more for African Americans, he said the president “has to balance a multitude of different issues and concerns. When he can lift up or promote issues that are unique to the African-American community, he has tried to do so, and he will continue to do so.”

Nevertheless, the budget deal with Republicans left a bitter aftertaste, and “there’s no doubt we would have preferred a different outcome,” Cleaver said. The president may have had no choice, he added, but “we’ll never know. We weren’t in the room.”

© 2011 Capitol News Company, LLC
Home Statehood D.C. angry at budget deal, Obama

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