02-19-2017  8:07 pm      •     

BALTIMORE (NNPA) – Then First Lady-to-be Michelle Obama, standing behind a little boy inside the Baltimore War Memorial, placed her hands on the child's shoulders and guided him toward her husband.
"I want you to meet my new friend," she gleefully told then President-elect Barack Obama. Looking down at the approximately 7-year-old, Obama broke into his trademark broad smile. His hands replaced hers on the boy's shoulders.
"Yes, I know," he said, looking down into his face. "And, he's got ears just like mine."
The child beamed with pride. Returning the broad smile, he boldly asked for an autograph.
"Children are really drawn to him," whispered Jen Psaki, an Obama aid. She observed the warm exchange only a few feet away, sitting beside this reporter, who was among members of the press traveling aboard Obama's historic "Whistle Stop" tour train on Saturday.
Moments later, the mode switched. Obama was whisked by stone-faced Secret Service men into a small room inside the vast Baltimore War Memorial.
"Okay, let's go," said Psaki, whisking this reporter into the room behind him.
There, Obama sat and engaged in a 10-minute, exclusive interview with the NNPA News Service, the Black Press of America.
Still wearing his dark, cashmere coat after speaking to a Baltimore audience of 40,000 in bone-chilling temperatures during the Amtrak train tour from Philadelphia to Baltimore, he described plans to use his presidential "bully pulpit" to challenge the Black community to strengthen itself from within, while also pushing public policies to deal with inequities that have long plagued African-Americans from without.
"In terms of the African-American community, one of the things that I want to make sure that everybody's clear about is - to paraphrase JFK – 'Don't ask just what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for yourself.'"
He was responding to a question about how his administration will address social and economic ills that have historically and disparately plagued Black Americans.
He continues, "I want fathers to start being part of their children's lives. I want our children to stop spending so much time watching television and hit the books. There are a lot of things under our control that can make our communities stronger and can open up opportunities for all of us. And I want to make sure that I'm using the bully pulpit to send that message loud and clear throughout my presidency."
Nevertheless, Obama, a civil rights lawyer, who made 100 percent on all NAACP Civil Rights Report Cards as a U. S. senator, recognizes that systemic racism and White supremacy have caused the African-American jobless rate to remain nearly twice that of the national average.
"Because African-Americans and Latinos are often the last hired, it also means they're the first fired," he says. "That's why getting the economy moving for everybody is so important because they're disproportionately impacted going up and going down."
One way to address the economic woes of America's general population while specifically improving the employment rates of Blacks and Hispanics would be to focus on jobs in urban communities, Obama said. More than three-fourths of African-Americans live in inner city or urban communities.
"I do think that we've got to focus on economic development in our urban areas…That's not a race-based program. That's a recognition that, 'Cities and suburbs, we're all in it together.' And we can't just deal with one without dealing with the other," he says.
Obama reminded that his economic recovery plan, now before Congress, calls for special training at community colleges to help people obtain so-called "new energy" or "green" jobs. Illustrating, he said, high school drop outs could be trained at a community college to help weatherize Baltimore homes.
"We think that we could have a big affect on our unemployment rates for all people."
Obama says his administration will maintain an open door to African-American organizations and community groups that desire to influence public policy, but who are also willing to make progress through service outside of government.
"We want to have an inclusive administration where all voices are heard," he said. "My job for all of my team is that they're constantly reaching out and listening to all voices. And so, we're going to have a very aggressive public liaison."
The White House Office of Public Liaison is headed by Valerie Jarrett, a long time friend of the Obamas, who is one of his senior advisors and among his leading African-American staffers.
"It will be constantly accessible to groups outside the White House and we want to make sure that every voice is heard in this process," he says.
The first African-American to hold the office of president, Obama has risen to leadership during tumultuous racial issues and incidents, including criminal justice inequities that have sparked protests over the past two years, race hate crimes, Black on Black crime, and a string of controversial police shootings in African-American communities.
Crime escalation is often the result of economic recession, Obama said. His economic recovery package includes more police on the streets to help deter crime. But, unjust police practices will not go unheeded either, he said.
"It is important that police officers receive effective training. And I think that my Justice Department is going to be in a position to work with local and state officials to provide the kinds of training that allows for effective law enforcement, but also fair and just law enforcement."
Obama appointee Eric Holder will soon become the nation's first Black attorney general to head the Justice Department if he is confirmed by the U. S. Senate.
Obama assumes power during one of the most tumultuous moments in American history. The U. S. is engaged in war in Iraq and Afghanistan and there is escalating conflict in the Middle East. The military conflicts serve as backdrops for the nation's economic crisis and a constant threat of terror.
Asked if he is ever fearful, he said in a deeply serious tone, "The only thing I worry about is obviously the problems we face are huge. I worry about the speed with which Congress gets our recovery plan passed; then we can start dealing with the home foreclosure situation," he says.
He credits his faith and a supportive and loving wife and family for keeping him "cool" as some have described him. Their daughters, Malia, 10, and Shasha, 7, joined him on the train tour, bouncing onto the stage together in Philadelphia.
"They're handling this transition wonderfully. And Michelle is so steady and so supportive," his voice lowers with affection. "Faith makes a huge difference; and then just confidence in the American people."
Preparing to take the presidential oath of office Jan. 20, he said he will be forever grateful for the civil rights struggles that put him there.
"Thanks to all our ancestors and earlier generations that fought, struggled and some died to give me this opportunity," he says.
Among those warriors was the historic Black Press, which will celebrate its 182nd year of existence during Black Press Week in March this year. Reaffirming a commitment to host a White House event in honor of the anniversary, Obama said, "We'll look forward to it."

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  • WASHINGTON (AP) — One month after the inauguration, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Donald Trump's White House still is a hard-hat zone. Skeletal remains of the inaugural reviewing stands poke skyward. Random piles of plywood and cables are heaped on the ground inside crooked lines of metal fencing. The disarray outside the president's front door, though not his fault, serves as a metaphor for the tumult still unfolding inside. Four weeks in, the man who says he inherited "a mess" at home and abroad is presiding over a White House that is widely described as itself being a mess. At a stunning pace, Trump has riled world leaders and frustrated allies. He was dealt a bruising legal blow on one of his signature policies. He lost his national security adviser and his pick for labor secretary to scandal. He's seen forces within his government push back against his policies and leak confidential information. All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. "I can't believe there's actually a politician doing what he says he would do," says an approving Scott Hiltgen, a 66-year-old office furniture sales broker from River Falls, Wisconsin. "That never happens." Disrupt Trump has. But there may be more sound and fury than substance to many of his early actions. Trump did select Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a nomination that has drawn strong reviews from conservatives. But the president is regrouping on immigration after federal judges blocked his order to suspend the United States' refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which had caused chaos for travelers around the globe. Some other orders on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall and former President Barack Obama's health care law are of limited effect. Trump says his early actions show he means to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall,'" the president told a group of police chiefs recently. "I wasn't kidding. I don't kid." But the Republican-led Congress is still waiting to see specifics on how Trump wants to proceed legislatively on top initiatives such as replacing the health care law, enacting tax cuts and revising trade deals. The messy rollout of the travel ban and tumult over the ouster of national security adviser Michael Flynn for misrepresenting his contacts with Russia are part of a broader state of disarray as different figures in Trump's White House jockey for power and leaks reveal internal discord in the machinations of the presidency. "I thought by now you'd at least hear the outlines of domestic legislation like tax cuts," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. "But a lot of that has slowed. Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. At his long and defiant news conference on Thursday, Trump tried to dispel the impression of a White House in crisis, squarely blaming the press for keeping him from moving forward more decisively on his agenda. Pointing to his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, Trump said, "You take a look at Reince, he's working so hard just putting out fires that are fake fires. I mean, they're fake. They're not true. And isn't that a shame because he'd rather be working on health care, he'd rather be working on tax reform." For all the frustrations of his early days as president, Trump still seems tickled by the trappings of his office. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visited the White House last week to discuss the national opioid epidemic over lunch, the governor said Trump informed him: "Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.'" Trump added: "I'm telling you, the meatloaf is fabulous." ___Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac
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