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Obama seeks to shore up black support in jobs push

Sep 24, 2011, 9:21 p.m.
US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama greet guests at the conclusion of the Congressional Black Caucus black-tie dinner in Washington September 24, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama urged black leaders on Saturday to "stop complaining" and help him push his jobs plan through the U.S. Congress, as he sought to bolster his eroding support in the black community amid concern over high unemployment.

In an impassioned speech to an awards banquet of the Congressional Black Caucus, Obama likened his efforts to win approval of his $447 billion jobs package to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and exhorted his audience to "march with me and press on."

Facing a tough 2012 re-election fight, Obama sought to shore up his once rock-solid base in the black community where polls show enthusiasm for his policies slipping while some politicians have started criticizing him for not focusing enough on disproportionately high black joblessness.

Obama, America's first black president and still a popular figure among black voters, acknowledged the frustration and appealed to his listeners to "keep the faith."

"I'm going to press on for jobs," Obama said to wild cheers. "Shake it off. Stop complaining. Stop grumbling. Stop crying. We are going to press on. We've got work to do."

Obama's re-election hopes may hinge on his ability to revive the stagnant U.S. economy and reduce 9.1 percent unemployment.

In the latest stop on his "pass this bill" tour, the Democratic president also seized the chance to keep pressure on Republicans over his jobs plan and taunt them for not embracing a package that includes tax breaks to spur company hiring.

Republicans have given Obama's jobs plan a cool reception and oppose tax hikes on wealthier Americans that would pay for it, saying it would discourage job creation.

But they have voiced a willingness to consider some of Obama's ideas, although they are wary because they see his earlier stimulus effort as packed with wasteful spending.

Obama said he had spoken to former President Bill Clinton, with whom he played golf earlier on Saturday, about his proposal to let expire tax cuts for richer Americans enacted under Republican President George W. Bush and revert to the rates that prevailed during Clinton's tenure.

"I was asking him, 'How did that go?' Obama said to laughter. "Well, it turns out we had a lot of jobs. The well-to-do, they did even better. So did the middle class. We lifted millions out of poverty."

SIGNS OF SOFTENING BLACK SUPPORT

Obama, who has adopted an increasingly populist tone to reconnect with liberals complaining he has not done enough for their causes, dismissed as "bad crazy" the notion put forth by some Republicans that it is the poor, not the rich, who should pay more in taxes.

Even as Obama's overall poll numbers have declined, cracks have begun to show in his support among blacks, a key constituency that helped propel him to victory in the 2008 presidential election.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll this week showed 58 percent of blacks held "strongly favorable" views of him, down from 83 percent five months ago. That coincides with black unemployment that has ticked up to close to 16 percent on Obama's watch.

The poll also showed 86 percent of blacks saying they viewed him at least somewhat favorably.

Obama's continued popularity among blacks, who voted overwhelmingly for him in 2008, was underscored by the warm reception he received on Saturday night from an audience that included black members of Congress and civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

(Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)

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