Dr. Jason Johnson
Barack Obama may have an excellent resume when it comes to attempts at bi-partisanship with the GOP, but he seems to have an entirely different effect on his own party’s unity.
Obama’s become a surprisingly polarizing figure within one of the most unified and consistent bastions of political power in the African-American community: The Congressional Black Caucus. The CBC appears to be going through one of its roughest periods in history and the most recent problems for the august caucus are centered right on the president that so many of them were enamored with just two years ago.
The last year has been one of the roughest for the CBC with problems coming from both the inside and the outside. Within the Democratic party, James Clyburn (D-S.Car.) has been bamboozeled out of a legitimate leadership bid in order to placate Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) is being put out to pasture because Democrats don’t have the backbone to stand up to future investigator-in-chief Darryl Issa (R-CA).
Then from the outside, ethics charges against old stalwarts such as Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Charlie Rangel (D-NY) have hamstrung the caucus’s leadership yet again. In particular Rangel’s rants about Obama not supporting him during his recent trials and tribulations further speaks to the chasm between the main leaders of the CBC and the White House. However, in the face of all of these problems, Chaka Fattah’s (D-Pa.) public break with the CBC last week shows one of the biggest cracks in the foundation of the caucu that the public has ever seen.
The Congressional Black Caucus leadership announced two Friday’s ago that they were against Obama’s tax cut deal with Republicans and that the members would stand firm against it. And then Fattah turned right around last Monday and publicly announced he was backing Obama over the CBC. In political terms, the CBC just got “Punk’D” by one of its own members.
On the surface Congressman Fattah has good reason for his break with the CBC. He represents Philadelphia, where the unemployment rate is 11 percent. Even if he doesn’t like extending Bush’s tax cuts to the rich, he at least doesn’t want thousands of his constituents to miss out on the extension of unemployment benefits that Obama put into the new deal. Of course, that’s not the only reason he’s taking this stand, and in such a public way.
The real reason is because he feels snubbed by the CBC from earlier this year. Fattah wanted to run for a Democratic leadership position on the powerful House Appropriations committee. Unfortunately, he did not have seniority on the committee. While Democrats usually hold to the seniority rule when it comes to leadership appointments on committees Fattah felt, rightly or wrongly, that in the face of the horrible losses in the 2010 mid-term elections that he was the best man for the job, regardless of how long he had been in Congress.
While few will admit it publicly, the CBC quietly backed senior Democrat on Appropriations Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) for the position, snubbing one of their own for a not only a white member of Congress but one whose abilities are not necessarily any more suited for the battles ahead with Republicans than Fattah. So what does our insulted Congressman do? He publicly backs the president of the United Sates over his own caucus, even though they’re all supposedly on the same team.
The significance of Fattah’s move – and the role Obama plays in it – cannot be understated. Yes, there are many Democrats who were unhappy withmObama’s tax plan, but the CBC Caucus spoke with one voice in their opposition. What’s more, the timing and intensity of Fattah’s break with the organization speaks to just how fractured the Caucus has become and this is before a Republican takeover in 2011 that promises to bring even more intense battles to both chambers.
It appears as though a generational shift is occurring in the CBC, where older member’s powers may be waning in D.C. younger members are seeking more influence and in the coming months a black Republican might even join from South Carolina. But in the midst of all of this, when siding with the African-American president of the United Sates is the ultimate public snub of the most powerful body of African-American politicians in the country, a brave new era of politics has finally come.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in campaigns and elections, pop culture, and the politics of sports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)