In White House Gathering with Black Leaders, an Effort at Fence-Mending

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On Wednesday, the Obama Administration held an “African American Policy” conference in Washington, hosting leaders from state and local governments, academia, business and media to discuss a range of topics: how the President’s jobs bill, if passed, would extend unemployment insurance benefits to millions of Americans–particularly relevant for blacks, 15.1% of whom are unemployed. And how U.S. trade policies affect Mississippi Delta catfish farmers.

A recent speech to the Congressional Black Caucus, in which Obama told blacks to “stop complainin,’” and new data showing growing poverty among African Americans, have strained relations between the White House and the black community in recent months. And Wednesday’s confab, organized by the office of Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s chief public engagement officer, can be interpreted as an attempt to relieve that tension.

The President himself wasn’t scheduled to attend. But shortly after noon, as someone asked about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill cleanup process, the President entered the auditorium of the Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. He acknowledged the unemployment rate among African Americans “is way too high,” and added: “If we are persistent, if we are unified and we remain hopeful, then we’ll get through these tough times and better days lie ahead.” The audience, which included several pastors, said: “Amen.”

The administration has held similar conferences in recent months explaining how its policies impact specific constituencies – for instance, Latinos, who will be a swing vote in next year’s presidential race. But as Republicans and Democrats wrestle over key voting blocs, there is concern, particularly in Washington, that blacks –who overwhelmingly vote Democratic – are being left out of the conversation.

Recent polling suggests that economic malaise has slightly diminished blacks’ view of Obama, but not necessarily enough to dent his of support among that group. Even so, there’s some danger that blacks will fail to turnout in large numbers next year, which could pose problems for Obama in states like North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, where African Americans comprise a significant share of the electorate. The attendees of Wednesday’s conference could be some of Obama’s most vital ambassadors to the grassroots. And it seems the President is aware of that.