By msnbc.com's Michael O'Brien
President Obama's fiery speech to the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Foundation's dinner on Saturday evening drew a stiff rebuke Monday from Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who questioned whether it was warranted for the president to tell black voters to "stop grumbling" and "put on your marching shoes."
"Some of his words were not, I think, appropriate and surprised me a little bit," Waters said Monday morning on CBS. "I was curious about it."
But other members of the CBC, including its chairman, Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D), have had different reactions to the speech, which they defended as a rallying call to African American voters, whose large turnout in 2008 helped fuel Obama's election, and whose 2012 turnout could be pivotal to the president's reelection effort.
"The Congressional Black Caucus supports the president; we intend to be as strongly pushing his reelection as anybody in the country," Cleaver said Monday morning on MSNBC.
"I was like most of the crowd there -- incredibly enthusiastic by the fighting spirit the president was showing. I think the president is right-on-message," Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards (D), another CBC member, said in a separate appearance on MSNBC. "I think it's incredibly clear, the difference, like night and day, between Republicans, who want to give special breaks to the wealthiest in this country, and the president of the United States. And it's important that we reelect him because we have to really get this country back...the president was on that message, and we're going to be on that message, too, for 2012."
Obama's speech on Saturday night to the CBC largely served as an animated -- if sometimes blunt -- call to action for black voters to get in line ahead of a tough reelection battle.
"I expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes," Obama said. "Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do, CBC."
The nation's first African-American president has weathered some criticism that he hasn't done enough via his economic plans to help the black community, which has been disproportionately affected by the recession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the black unemployment rate stood at 16.3 percent at the end of August, well above the national average of 9.1 percent.
Waters, who endorsed then-Sen. Hillary Clinton over Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, has been one of the president's top critics within the CBC. She publicly criticized the president last month at a town hall meeting in Atlanta hosted by the CBC, where she described a "growing frustration" with the president within minority communities, and questioned why Obama's August bus tour didn't stop in any predominantly black areas. She suggested Monday that Obama would never speak to Hispanic, gay rights, or pro-Israel groups the way he spoke to the CBC.
(The president has delivered a similar message, though, in recent days. Obama told supporters last night that "I may need you to have some arguments with our progressive friends," admonishing them against becoming "dispirited" because the administration wasn't able to achieve everything its liberal supporters had wanted.)
Obama's speech Saturday didn't make any reference to Waters, but contained unmistakable political undertones as Obama begins to ramp up his reelection effort. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this month found that Obama's support from black voters remained high; 92 percent of black respondents approved the way Obama is handling his job, while just five percent disapproved.
Those numbers raise questions about the extent to which Obama will be able to lean on the black vote in 2012 the way he did during his initial campaign, especially in potential swing states like Virginia or North Carolina, where African American turnout tipped the scale toward Obama.
"Trying to get the maximum turnout is going to be challenging, there's no question about it. I'm not going to pretend that it's going to be easy or even comparable to what we had three years ago," Cleaver said, acknowledging the challenges facing the president's reelection. But the CBC chairman argued that that's why it was important for Obama to begin his outreach efforts now.
"If we make a decision to stay home next year for the 2012 presidential election, we're making a decision to put someone out of the White House who genuinely wants to stop the bleeding, if you will, of those who are unemployed," he said.
Congressional Black Caucus chairman pledges support for President Obama after his fiery weekend speech.