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Time For A 'Black Agenda' In The White House?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program we are going to head to Central Africa to find out what's happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where an armed rebel group managed to take over one of the country's most important cities, despite the presence of a massive United Nations peacekeeping force. We'll talk about how that happened and why it matters with a reporter who is there on the ground. That's coming up later in the program.

But first we want to check in on political developments in this country. And if you've been following the news, then you know that the headlines are dominated right now by the question of whether Congress and the White House can reach an agreement on avoiding a package of automatic spending cuts and automatic tax hikes at the beginning of the year.

They did this to force themselves to negotiate over a plan to reduce the deficit. It's being called the fiscal cliff. But that's not the only decision that the president and Congress have to make right now. The president is also setting his second term priorities. And many of the people in groups that strongly supported him are suggesting it's time he get a bit more vocal about their needs.

We wanted to talk about all of this so we've called on Keli Goff. She's a political correspondent for That's an online publication that focuses on issues with an African-American perspective. She recently wrote an article asking whether President Obama should pursue a black agenda in his second term.

Also with us is Kenneth Blackwell. He is a former Republican mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio, a former secretary of state for Ohio. He is now a contributing editor for the conservative news and opinion site and a fellow at the conservative think tank and advocacy group the Family Research Council. He's with us with his office in Cincinnati. Thank you both so much for speaking with us once again. Good to have you both back.

KENNETH BLACKWELL: Good to be with you both.

MARTIN: So Keli Goff, let me start with you. I want to talk about this article you recently wrote for The Root. It's titled "Will Obama Push a Black Agenda Now?" One of the interesting things you pointed out in your piece is that there were kind of rumblings of dissatisfaction with the president before the election, but now it seems as though people say, look, we strongly supported this person, now it's time for him to focus on our specific needs.

I wanted to ask - is that a widespread feeling among key constituencies groups? You're focusing particularly on African-Americans, but is that a widely held view, particularly among progressives?

KELI GOFF: I would say yes. I would say that's what different, Michel, though, is the tone and the anger, depending on who you talk to. Right? Because there are progressives within the African-American community and elsewhere where the tone is: I'm really angry, this is not what I voted for four years ago. This is not the change I voted for, right?

And then there are those who say, look, I get it. Right? If he wanted to get reelected, I did not expect to hear him every other day mention a, quote, black agenda. I get it. But now he's gotten reelected and I'd like to see some progress. Right? And so it's sort of different in the tone and the anger and the expectation, I would say.

MARTIN: What do you think - how predominant is anger as a part of this equation? I mean it's hard to assess such a thing because by definition one is talking to political elites and they may have behind the scenes issues that we don't always know about. But how widespread a point of view do you think that is?

GOFF: I would say it can't be that widespread because African-Americans actually turned out in higher numbers in some states than they did four years ago. Right? So I think there's a lot more understanding than perhaps to your point we get to see because of the sort of Washington beltway megaphone that certain critics get. Right?

So a lot of the anger we get to see on TV and hear in news reports and reported in the blogosphere. But I think that it's more representative is what I heard from Representative Emanuel Cleaver whom I interviewed a couple months ago - and I mentioned his quote in the piece - the outgoing chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who said to me at the time that if the black unemployment numbers were these numbers under a white president we'd be picketing around the White House.

But I also understand, he said, that if he mentions the word black he has people like Glenn Beck coming out and calling him an anti-white racist, which is what Glenn Beck called him. Even though the man was, you know, raised by a white family. Right? So Representative Cleaver, I think, was representative of a lot of people that I'm not happy, but I get it.

MARTIN: Kenneth Blackwell, it's great to have you in the conversation because as a former elected official yourself, you would be one of the people negotiating in a tough political situation. And I wanted to ask about that. How do you navigate a situation where you have constituency groups who do feel that they are owed something, if I can use that expression?

And yet you do have to reach an agreement where there are strongly held views on the other side.

BLACKWELL: I think the president is in an envious situation because the issues concerning and gravely impacting the black communities across this country, the Hispanic communities, are the same issues that are affecting the country at large. We have a growth deficit. We have - median income is down over $4,000 and that has disproportionately impacted the black community.

The unemployment rate as we just - you all just talked about has remained high above eight percent for 44 straight months and that has disproportionately affected the African-American and Hispanic communities. The president has to get the economy growing again, and that's why it's so important that he show leadership in getting the table set in Washington for a bipartisan fix on this economy.

Because if we don't get the economy growing again, we're not going to deal with the most substantial problems impacting black families across this country, and that is a declining income base and a loss of jobs.

MARTIN: Mr. Blackwell, you said that you think the president is in an enviable position. Is that because of his strong election showing? Or just because it's the nature of being a second term president, that you just have more freedom?

BLACKWELL: Well, I think it's being a second term president, but I think he can speak to the issues of great concern in the African-American community without bifurcating those issues away from the general agenda that he must, you know, attend to. We have to get the economy growing again and it's going to take his leadership.

And you know, right now I think his approach is not the most impactful approach in terms of economic growth, in terms of, you know, proposing to double the size of the tax that he had talked about during the campaign or, you know, expanding on stimulus spending and expanding our indebtedness to foreign interests, most notably China.

But look, I think that we're at a situation now where the clock is ticking and I think there's a lot of folks doing Kabuki dances.


BLACKWELL: I think the president will, in fact, show some leadership working with Boehner and others and get this job done. Or we're going to find ourselves on a slippery slope, moving in a direction of some of our European friends.

MARTIN: We're speaking with the former secretary of state of Ohio. He's now a columnist with a conservative think tank and a website, Kenneth Blackwell. He's also former Cincinnati mayor. And The Root political correspondent Keli Goff. We're having our political chat.

You know, Keli, to Mr. Blackwell's point, Politico picked up your article. And it was interesting when I looked at the comment section. One of the people...


MARTIN: Well, no, no. I mean I know what you're saying. That is not always the friendliest place. But there are a lot of people who articulated what they think a black agenda should be. And some of the things that they talked about were issues like unemployment, like violence, particularly in certain areas, like boarded up storefronts, a lack of economic activity.

If that's the case, why does the president have to racialize the argument...

GOFF: Well, here's...

MARTIN: ...if that's a widely held view?

GOFF: Right. And here's what I was going to say, is - is I always go back and forth. And I've had this debate privately, publicly, about, right, exactly what constitutes a, quote, so-called black agenda. But the one thing I would slightly disagree with or differ with in what Secretary Blackwell pointed to, is the numbers in terms of black male unemployment are so sky-high, and they have been so sky-high.

And this is not something we can blame the president for. This has been an ongoing problem that has simply gotten worse.

Whenever the economy tanks, it has affected black male - particularly young black males - worse. The number was as high as 17.5 percent as of last year, and for black teens it was 41 percent, Michel.

So in terms of racializing it, the reality is the president did not have the political capital to racialize this issue when he was facing reelection. I cannot see how he solves it without doing so now. And what do I mean by that? Well, there was a study from Princeton University about five years ago that found that if you take a white man who says he has a felony conviction on a job application, a black man who says he has absolutely no prison record, no jail record, no convictions of any kind, the white man is still twice as likely to get a call back for a job interview. That is a fundamental problem lingering in our society. This was not 50 years ago. This was five years ago they did this study.

So my point is, I don't see how you address those numbers without articulating and verbalizing and addressing that underlying problem that's playing a role in it. He didn't have the capital to do so. We know he barely ever mentioned race or racism in the first term. The times he even looked like he was thinking about going there, by mentioning Trayvon Martin - if I had a son, he'd look like him - he got vilified and crucified in the media, in the conservative media, and there was a huge political backlash.

I think he can't keep running away from it. I think some of these things he's actually got to discuss the ugly truth, which is that racism plays a role. This is really controversial and I don't expect to see this happen, but I'm just throwing this out there as one example - is to address the unemployment plaguing our veterans. He came up with the veteran - the tax credit, right, for businesses willing to hire veterans.

I do not see how he really tackles the issue of black male unemployment without throwing something out of the box like that, like saying what can we do, whether it's having a bigger conversation about affirmative action or something, because that's what it's going to take to really address this issue in a serious way.

MARTIN: Mr. Blackwell, a final thought from you? We only have about a minute left. What's your big idea about what the most important thing that the president should do to address these pressing problems? Is it tonal or is there a specific policy that you think he needs to address?

BLACKWELL: Oh, I think he can set a tone by raising some questions, shining a light on issues that need to have lights shined on them. But look, he has to get the economy growing again. He has to understand that we have businesses and investors with a trillion dollars sitting, you know, on the sidelines. We have to create an environment that will get those folks to invest in America so that we can get the sort of economic growth and job creation necessary to provide opportunities for - you know, this is not going to go away if what we pursue is the redistributionist strategy, because all too often that results in a zero sum game .


BLACKWELL: And I can tell you, black unemployment's not going to be helped in a zero sum game. We have to get the economy growing again and then a leader or leaders across the country shining lights on particularly tough problems.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. Kenneth Blackwell is the former mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio, the former secretary of state of Ohio. He is a Republican. He's contributing editor now for the conservative news and opinion site He was with us from Cincinnati. Keli Goff is political correspondent for The Root. That's an online publication that addresses issues from an African-American perspective. She joined us from our bureau in New York City.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

GOFF: Thanks, Michel.

BLACKWELL: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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