WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama acknowledged on Wednesday that black Americans have faced "enormous challenges" with unemployment under his watch, and appealed for their support in pursuing solutions that he can implement without help from Congress.
Appearing at a daylong White House summit of black business, community and political leaders, Obama said the current 15.1 percent unemployment rate among blacks is "way too high," and that various other problems that plagued black communities before he took office, such as housing and education, have worsened.
"We know tough times," the president said. "And what we also know, though, is that 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."
Noting that his proposed American Jobs Act is still pending in Congress, Obama made a plea for ideas "where we don't have to wait for Congress," and initiatives "that we can take right now administratively that would make a difference in the communities that all of you represent."
Obama has endured some tough criticism within the black community because joblessness among African Americans runs chronically higher than the overall unemployment rate, which is 9 percent. Some of his toughest critics have been within the Congressional Black Caucus. Some caucus members have said he was not targeting the problems faced by blacks.
The Obama administration disputes that argument. However, Wednesday's session was a noticeable departure from its past mode of studiously de-emphasizing race when it comes to its policies.
"Since day one, the president has fought for the policies that matter to the African-American community," White House adviser Valerie Jarrett told reporters on Tuesday.
The president's appearance was not on the official agenda of the African-American Policy In Action Leadership Conference organized by the White House and held at the Executive Office Building next door.
Audience members jumped to their feet and cheered when the president walked onto the stage, interrupting a question-and-answer session for a panel that included Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.
At the forum, the president touted elements of his jobs bill that would address those issues and said his plan is the only one out there that will put people back to work.
A White House report released in conjunction with the forum enumerates policy initiatives and decisions that administration officials said helped African Americans. The officials encouraged attendees to spread the word of the accomplishments in their communities.
Obama said the three years of decisions and actions summed up in the report have lessened the severity of the economic crisis for millions, kept millions out of poverty and made sure millions had unemployment benefits, health care and other assistance.
The report "also talks about the foundations that we are laying, so that as the economy recovers, the African-American community and communities all across the country of every stripe" can rebuild with solid middle-class jobs with good benefits, Obama said.
For example, he said, his administration has sped up payments to government vendors so they are paid in 15 rather than 30-day increments.
"This is something that can benefit folks right away, and we can start seeing a difference in our communities," Obama said.
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