WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Rep. John Lewis jokingly says he'll try to resist calling Barack Obama "Brother President" after he's sworn in as the nation's first African-American president on January 20.
"He is not just our president, he's the president of all Americans," said Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon, "the president of black Americans, Latino Americans — all Americans."
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are still giddy that Obama, a caucus member when he was a senator, is about to become the 44th president of the United States. Speaking at a panel at Massachusetts' Williams College on Monday night, Lewis and eight other caucus members spoke of crying, jumping for joy, and celebrating on Nov. 4 when Obama was declared the winner over Republican rival John McCain.
But for some caucus members, Nov. 4's afterglow is accompanied by a recognition that Obama's election won't necessarily give them an express lane into the Oval Office for programs to directly address issues impacting the African-American community simply because he's sitting behind the desk.
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In other words, don't expect Obama to do too much too fast.
Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., the House Majority Whip and a former black caucus chairman, warned against Obama "lurching," or trying to quickly rack up successes to reward groups that voted for him.
"He's at 75 percent approval in the polls . . . as high as anybody taking office. Anybody," Clyburn said. "That could dissipate overnight if you lurch too far left or right . . . I don't want to do anything quickly, I want to do it lastingly."
Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., thinks that issues affecting African-Americans — such as the gaps dividing blacks from whites in health care, education and employment, as well as the disproportionately high incarceration rate of black men — will be dealt with by Obama in time.
"You have to manage expectations, and there is a process to it," he said. "If one were to ask me if we are going to get some very progressive legislation, yes. Are we going to be more effective in doing it than we were during the last four years, I'd say 'Absolutely, yes!' Will we have all the problems solved that we would like solved? Obviously not in four years."
Nonetheless, expectations for Obama are immense. Michael B. Coleman, the first African-American mayor of Columbus, Ohio, wrote last week in The Columbus Dispatch newspaper that "Many African-Americans believe we not only elected a president, but also a savior.
"Some African-Americans might come to the conclusion that our struggle as a people is over because, whatever our problems in the black community, Obama is here to solve them," Coleman wrote.
Bruce Ransom, a political science professor at South Carolina's Clemson University and an expert on W. Wilson Goode, Philadelphia's first African-American mayor, said it's a common burden for African-American political "firsts."
"You have a situation, particularly in the African-American community with the excitement of the campaign, that issues that haven't been addressed will be addressed," Ransom said. "This is probably a situation in which there are a number of individuals and constituent groups that, in many cases in which promises have not been made, believe because of what Obama represents that he will carry out their agenda."
In transitioning from campaigning to governing, Obama has tried to dampen those expectations. Absent from Obama's election night victory speech was a quote he often used as a candidate from slain civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. about "the fierce urgency of now."
Instead, Obama told supporters in Chicago's Grant Park that America faces a long road.
"We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there," he said. "I promise you — we as a people will get there."
The black caucus members at Williams College said they understand Obama's need to pace himself politically. They expect to have an understanding ear in the White House for the first time in eight years — but that won't stop them from pushing their agenda.
The 41-member caucus has plenty of powerful people capable of pushing. Clyburn is the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives behind Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., is chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., is chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
"I think the role of the Congressional Black Caucus will not alter from its roadmap of social change and social justice," Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, told the Williams College audience. "We can be fighters against hate crimes, we can be promoters of affirmative action, not in a discriminatory basis but in an outreach basis.
"And we can tread in places as people of color where we have not been before, whether it's energy, health care, higher levels of education, higher levels of corporate America," Lee said. "I think that's what we will be able to do even as President Barack Obama serves this nation as the American president."
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