Lewis, a civil rights icon and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, greets Obama on the House floor before the president’s State of the Union address to Congress. The relationship between Obama and the CBC has been a complicated one.
About one month into her new position leading the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Marcia L. Fudge already has shown a willingness to push the nation’s first African-American president aggressively behind the scenes to embrace her group’s priorities.
The Ohio Democrat moved quickly to promote three CBC members for open Cabinet positions, highlighting a long-standing sore spot in the relationship between the CBC and President Barack Obama.
Obama, in turn, dispatched top aide Valerie Jarrett for her first Capitol Hill meeting of the second term to meet with the CBC for a State of the Union preview and listening session with members.
In an interview, Fudge deemed the president’s speech a success for the group, noting that he addressed voting rights, poverty and immigration.
“We were very happy that he talked about our three biggest issues that the caucus deals with,” Fudge said. “Since I have been chair, I have had a good relationship and do have communication with the White House.”
Privately, the relationship between the two entities has been complicated for a long time, with members complaining about social snubs and Obama’s reluctance to address the high black unemployment rate head on.
In late 2011, the disagreements culminated in a public spat. But more often, they have been masked. White House officials are sensitive to any conflict being reported in the press, and CBC members often hold their tongues.
“What we have been very careful to avoid is aiding and abetting the haters. The president is the subject of a lot of unfair and awful criticism. We have chosen rather than joining with that crowd, to issue our concern in a different form. Most of it has not been public, and I doubt seriously that there will be a change in the second term,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, who preceded Fudge as CBC chairman.
The rift over Obama’s Cabinet is a case in point on the sometimes strained relationship between the president and the CBC.
There was some jealousy in Obama’s first term that a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, then-Rep. Hilda L. Solis, D-Calif., was chosen to lead the Labor Department but that no member of the CBC was even vetted for a Cabinet slot. Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. of Georgia was discussed for Agriculture secretary but not formally vetted.
The CBC’s letters, however, aren’t as much about pushing the particular individuals it is recommending, but part of a broader push for Obama to increase the diversity of his Cabinet — something his most recent picks have lacked.
“His Cabinet should look like America,” Fudge said. “If you look at the coalition that elected the president, we were a very large part of it.”
Cleaver said the group wanted to ensure Obama has on his radar capable African- American candidates who can “help create what we know the president wants to create, which is the image of a diverse higher echelon of the U.S. government.”
“We thought a more responsible and positive way of dealing with the issue is not to just say, ‘You’ve not appointed significant numbers of African-Americans.’ We decided, we’re gonna give you names,” he added.
Underscoring how little the effort is connected to the actual names being floated, one of the benefactors of the CBC’s support, Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., wasn’t even informed a letter promoting him to be the next Transportation secretary was being sent.
When the letter first surfaced publicly, Clyburn’s office released a statement throwing cold water on the idea. Asked by CQ Roll Call whether the letter was part of a broader effort to urge diversity, Clyburn said, “I would assume that’s what they’re doing.”
“We had talked to him about it informally. I don’t think he was totally surprised,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., said. “We had mentioned it to him four years ago, you know, and he wasn’t interested four years ago. And we mentioned it to him this time, and he didn’t seem to be terribly interested. But he knew we were talking about it.”
White House officials have assured CBC leaders that they will be pleased with future decisions.
“They’ve assured us that the process hasn’t ended yet, that we needed to be patient, that we’ll be very pleased with the outcome. I think we’ll have a very good and diverse Cabinet,” Butterfield said.
Another top complaint has been a lack of opportunities for CBC members to interact with Obama informally. Many of the president’s recreational activities, such as golf and other outings, are kept to a small group of long-standing friends and aides.
“They like to be close to the king,” a former leadership aide said.
Some attribute the rift to the 2008 primary campaign, when many CBC members endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton over Obama, angering top Obama aides.
In a sign Obama may be looking to embrace CBC members more, Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt accompanied Obama to the congressman’s home state of North Carolina on Air Force One on Feb. 13.
At the Feb. 6 meeting with Jarrett, CBC members brought up a long list of agenda items.
Cleaver said members urged the administration to embrace a summer jobs program for young people, and Butterfield said he asked Jarrett to address “the importance of more African-American federal judges and the blue-slip abuse that many Republican senators are engaged in. You know, refusing to turn in the blue slip for qualified judges who’ve been nominated.”
Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia said Jarrett’s message to the CBC was “work with us, we’re not finished, give us some time.”
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.