WASHINGTON (TEWire) – It was an evening marked by thunderous applause, Republicans and Democrats symbolically sitting together instead of across the aisles, and a message from the president of the United States that soared with hope for economic recovery, health care, education and jobs.
Still, President Obama fell slightly short of 10 points in the view of most Congressional Black Caucus members and Black leaders interviewed by the Trice Edney News Wire after the Tuesday night speech when they were asked to grade the State of the Union on a scale of 1-10.
“I give it a nine-and-a-half,” says CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). He says the president got an “A” for giving the inspiration that was needed as the economy appears to be generally turning around. But, Cleaver expressed concern about a void in specificity on what programs might be cut in order to make up for a $400 billion freeze on annual domestic spending that the president proposed to start this year and extend for the next five years.
“This freeze will require painful cuts,” President Obama said. “Already, we’ve frozen the salaries of hardworking federal employees for the next two years. I’ve proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs. The secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without.”
That one phrase, “community action programs” or CAPs, as they are formally known in cities across the nation, appears to be the wrench that caused concern among CBC members, including Cleaver.
Community Action Programs, founded in the mid-1970s, help thousand of elderly and low income with basic needs, such as food, financial literacy, and job search assistance.
“The stuff that he said about cuts kind of worries me,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who gave the speech a six-and-a-half, giving high marks for Obama’s discussion about increasing jobs by rebuilding America’s infrastructure. “ are lifeline programs. Those are not luxury programs. These are programs that keep people subsisting. So what is he talking about?”
The president’s speech, at the mid-term of his first four-year term, was also watched closely by Black civil rights leaders.
“We applaud the President for his foresight in recognizing that we need to prepare our workforce for the jobs of the future and to be able to compete with the rest of the world,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial said in a statement. He said he would continue to urge Congress to send “our limited resources to those youth and adults who have been disproportionately impacted by the recession – especially in our urban communities – by adopting the NUL’s proposals on summer jobs, reforming our workforce development system, and enacting the Urban Youth Empowerment Program.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose Rainbow/PUSH Coalition has historically focused on strengthening the poor, said in an interview that he would give the speech high marks for inspiration, but it was missing a key element, he said.
“He didn’t mention the word poverty and poverty is growing,” said Rev. Jackson. “Forty-nine million are in poverty. They work and can’t pay their rent. Poverty is a big deal. I think his assumption is that rising tides lifts all boats. Wall Street’s yachts have lifted, but no one is discussing poverty.”
Still, President Obama’s promise to simultaneously shore up jobs and education was a big hit with U. S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) who gave the speech a whole 10.
“You can’t have the job if you don’t have the education. You can’t get the education if you’re not disciplined and you can’t get the discipline if you don’t have that family structure,” Scott said.
U. S. Rep. Clyburn (D-S.C.) called the State of the Union “a great speech” and also gave it a 10 for how far the Obama has brought the country—though he echoed concerns about program cuts.
“I think the people are now seeing who and what President Obama is. We have to give him credit for stepping up when we had an economy that was hemorrhaging 750,000 jobs a month,” Clyburn said. “So, when you’re responding to a crisis and you look at a place where you’ve never been, then it’s going to be hit and miss.”
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who declined to give a rating, said everyone should expect cuts and should not be surprised by the Presidents mention of CAPS after the across the board tax cuts that Obama awarded in a deal with Republicans last year.
“That’s what happens when you pass an $850 billion tax cut,” Scott said. “Everybody wants a tax cut. That’s nice. How are we going to pay for it? Now we are finding out.”
Still, some CBC members praised the President for simply making hard decisions.
“I think the president hit a home run because he’s really talking about the future. If not a 10, maybe a 10 plus,” said Rep. Donna Edwards. “This is about the 21st century.”
Edwards quickly pointed out that the President stressed his willingness to make sacrificial cuts but only of those programs that are not necessary.
“But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens,” Obama said to applause.