Seeking to overcome a rocky August recess, the country’s first black president and the Congressional Black Caucus have repaired relations recently as the administration has stepped up outreach to the group and the black community.
From August to October, Members expressed frustration with the administration, and President Barack Obama, a former caucus member, responded at a CBC dinner that detractors should “stop whining.”
But in the months since, the administration has been careful to “correct missteps,” CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver said. “Most CBC members are feeling better about it.
“The White House has, in my estimation as the chair, conscientiously worked to reduce the little dings and dents that happened to the relationship, and as a result, I think things have improved,” the Missouri Democrat said. “We still have little instances where maybe somebody is not notified a Cabinet secretary is coming to their district, but the White House has gone way out trying to change that.”
Punctuated by a high-profile meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder last week — the first such meeting this Congress — Members and staff said their goal is to head into election season unified in order to win Obama, and themselves, another term.
“Most of the people, if not all, in the CBC are really, really good politicians,” Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said, adding that they know when it’s time to support the president.
“I acknowledge that there’s been some restlessness among CBC members,” said caucus Second Vice Chairman G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.). “But when you get beyond that … we are in lock step with each other and in lock step with the president.”
Members and staff had complained of a communication gap between the administration and the caucus, which ultimately led to a public “family discussion,” as Cleaver called it.
“In the last two months, all of a sudden you can see a ratcheting up of responsiveness,” on the part of the White House, said a CBC staffer familiar with the group’s thinking. “You can see a marked difference and at least a surface-level attempt at trying to check off some of the boxes.”
Among those boxes was a key complaint in the caucus that the administration did not hire senior African-American staffers who could connect better with the group.
During the past few months, however, the Obama organization, whether in the White House or on the campaign trail, has made key hires that Members believe will help outreach.
Chief among them is Broderick Johnson, whom Obama tapped late last month to serve as a senior adviser to the campaign.
“They will not tell you it’s for the purpose of talking to the CBC/African-American constituencies,” said the CBC staffer, “but everybody who knows the process knows he was hired … to be the senior person for the African-American community.
“That’s a positive step forward,” the staffer continued. “He’s a known commodity, at least in the D.C. African-American community.”
Other hires have helped. In mid-August, former CBC aide Nicole Isaac moved from Vice President Joseph Biden’s legislative affairs team to that of the president’s.
In September, the administration hired Jewel James, former director of Massachusetts Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick’s office in Washington, D.C., as deputy director of intergovernmental affairs. James is also a former aide to several CBC members.
The campaign also hired Butterfield’s daughter, Valeisha Butterfield-Jones, as its national youth vote director in the Chicago campaign office.
Rep. Maxine Waters, perhaps the Member most vocal with her concerns months ago, played down any lingering friction.
“That’s all over,” the California Democrat said Wednesday. “It never was anything.”
The administration topped the hires with other gestures, such as having Obama grab a meal in Los Angeles at Roscoe’s House of Chicken ’n Waffles with Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.).
Obama met Wednesday with an NAACP official to discuss the American Jobs Act, and the day before, he signed an executive order turning Virginia’s Fort Monroe, a site central to the history of slavery, into a national monument.
The White House also debuted an African-American newsletter that it sends to a listserv, which looks to highlight the administration’s accomplishments on behalf of the black community.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.