But the relationship between the president and his alma mater hasn’t always been smooth. Much of the friction relates to the economic climate, which pits the White House’s deficit-trimming zeal against CBC members who say their constituents have been hardest hit by high unemployment rates and the housing downturn.
The CBC criticized the White House’s most recent budget, decrying cuts to a variety of programs, from home-heating assistance to higher education. More generally, some CBC members have long felt that the Obama White House simply hasn’t welcomed them.
Cleaver downplays the strife, saying the CBC’s role is to agitate — even against a black president. “There has not been one president where they have been sworn in and we have said, ‘Problem solved,’” Cleaver says. “So we have some differences with the president. He understands that. In many ways he appreciates that opposition to some of his proposals, and we think that is healthy.”
And as overt discrimination in public life has diminished, the Congressional Black Caucus has more fully embraced its mission of advocating on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. Blacks, after all, make up a disproportionate percentage of those living below the poverty level.
“It’s impossible to single out black people in trying to take care of them,” Rangel says. “Whether you’re talking about workman’s compensation, whether you’re talking about health care ... you can’t have a black bill. We have done more to ease the economic pain of non-black folks than probably any other group down here.”
As the group marks its 40th anniversary, some of its members hope their successes will someday render the CBC obsolete. “If we are around 40 years from today,” Cleaver says, “then we have failed miserably.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.