Image: President Barack Obama
Jason Reed  /  REUTERS
President Barack Obama waves during a Labor Day event Monday at General Motors headquarters in Detroit.
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updated 9/10/2011 12:59:59 PM ET 2011-09-10T16:59:59

President Barack Obama's jobs pitch is already playing well with blacks, who had grown plenty irked with him over what they perceived as his indifference to their needs.

A day after Obama laid out before Congress his plan to kick-start job growth, many blacks hoped it would translate into reduced misery for them over the coming months. While the country's unemployment rate stands at 9.1 percent, black unemployment has hit 16.7 percent, the highest since 1984. Unemployment among male blacks is at 18 percent, and black teens are unemployed at a rate of 46.5 percent.

The early signs of their reaction were positive.

Social media sites were abuzz with highlights from the president's plan. Amid the comments were excited responses to the proposal, especially from the black community. Twitter was full of similar bursts of excitement over the plan, with some black Tweeters defending the president and applauding his message. One user tweeted: "Taking a sharp tone 'cause the NumbersDontLie! Pass this bill and put America back to work."

Prominent African-Americans like Kenneth Chenault, chairman and CEO of American Express and Michael Nutter, mayor of Philadelphia, quickly applauded the plan. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., has been one of the most vocal advocates for dealing more effectively with black unemployment, but she was enthusiastic.

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For the president, it was a welcome change in tone after a steady drumbeat of criticism from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who held their own job fairs and town hall meetings while protesting that Obama's jobs tour across America last month bypassed black communities.

The caucus' urban blitz cleared a path for the country's first black president to act, Waters said.

"I can see that our handprint is all over it," Waters said of Obama's plan. "We upped the ante a little bit by pushing, being a bit more vocal. This was not done in a way to threaten the president but to make it easier for him. We think we helped him to be able to formulate a response."

The jobs plan was praised by Ralph Everett, president and chief executive of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonpartisan black think tank.

Although the president did not specifically mention high unemployment among blacks, black people "are sophisticated enough to understand" how their communities will benefit, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Friday.

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"Obviously there is a debate raging, saying that we should come out and say this expressly for the black and Latino community," Kirk said. "But this president got elected spectacularly on his premise that we are not a black America, a brown America, a white America. We are one America."

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The White House moved quickly to capitalize politically on the good will, emailing an extraordinary blast of supportive statements from elected officials, union leaders and interest groups within minutes after Obama spoke Thursday night.

On Friday, while the president pushed his American Jobs Act in Richmond, Va., his aides promoted targeted relief to Hispanics, teachers, police officers, construction workers, small businesses and others.

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Administration officials said the plan would extend unemployment benefits and provide support for 1.4 million blacks who have been unemployed six months or longer. It also would provide summer and subsidized jobs for youth, help boost the paychecks of 20 million black workers through an extension and expansion of the payroll tax, and benefit, in some way, more than 100,000 black-owned small businesses.

"With over 16 percent of African-Americans out of work and over 1 million African-Americans out of work over six months, I think the president believes this is a serious problem and the onus is on us to do everything we can to tackle this," Danielle Gray, deputy director of the National Economic Council, told reporters.

White House adviser Valerie Jarrett promoted Obama's plan on Steve Harvey's syndicated morning radio show, saying it would help "every part of our country, but particularly those who are the most vulnerable, who have been struggling the hardest, who have been trying to make ends meet and all they need is a little help from their government."

A factor in the early enthusiasm in Obama's plan with blacks is that most accept that, as the country's first black president, there are limits to what he can do about their specific problems — especially as he heads into the 2012 campaign.

"Do I think he's doing everything he can? Yes, of course," said Tonia Thomas, 44, a divorced Atlanta mother who was unemployed for more than a year before taking a $30,000 pay cut to work as a hotel clerk. "A lot of what's going on is being used to exclude people of color in general. I don't know what he can do."

The president has to be careful in targeting his efforts, some say.

"The more he talks about race, the more votes he loses," said Randall Kennedy, author of a new book exploring racial politics and the Obama presidency. "Barack Obama had to overcome his blackness to become president ... and he's going to have to overcome it to be re-elected."

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, an Obama supporter who engaged in damage control for the president this week, said black Americans "need to burst this false notion" that the president should put black unemployment on par with overall unemployment.

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"If leaders in our community want to push him to lay out a black agenda, I believe that will end up disserving the black community and help elect people who certainly don't have a past history about caring about the interests of the African-American community," Reed said after Obama's speech. "This debate is weakening the president and puts him in a political position where he has to do something to confirm his blackness."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Obama calls on Congress to pass jobs bill

  1. Closed captioning of: Obama calls on Congress to pass jobs bill

    >> chuck, good morning.

    >> good morning. it was a fiery president that went to the well of the house to plead with congressional republicans to pass his latest idea that jump-start america's flagging economy.

    >> you should pass this jobs plan right away.

    >> reporter: the president had a message. and to make sure no one missed it, he repeated it 17 times.

    >> you should pass it right away. you should pass this bill right away. you should pass it.

    >> reporter: the american jobs act which the president formally sends to congress next week calls for tax breaks for companies who hire new workers, who have special incentives for someone who has spent more than six months looking for a job or for hiring veterans.

    >> the last thing they should have to do is fight for a job when they come home.

    >> reporter: it will extend unemployment benefits for another year. cuts payroll taxes in half for every working american and every small business . the president says that would save the typical family $ 1500 .

    >> $ 1500 that would have been taking out of your pocket, will go into your pocket.

    >> reporter: it has programs to build and repair infrastructure. and a plan to modernize 35,000 schools and rehire laid off teachers.

    >> there should be nothing controversial about this piece of legislation. everything in here is the kind of proposal that's been supported by both democrats and republicans. and everything in this bill will be paid for, everything.

    >> reporter: republicans responded to the president on two fronts. republican congressional leaders were conciliatory but the republican presidential candidates were more critical. rick perry hit the president for the $450 billion price tag saying he's guided by his mistaken belief that we can spend our way to prosperity. mitt romney released a web video for hitting the president for taking so long to focus on jobs, 961, by their count. the president anticipated the campaign rhetoric.

    >> the next election is 14 months away. and the people who sent us here, the people who hired us to work for them, they don't have the luxury of waiting 14 months.

    >> reporter: the selling of this plan begins today. the president goes to richmond, virginia, home of number two house republican eric cantor , and then next week he begins selling it by going to the home state of speaker john boehner .

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