President Bush is opening the White House this week to black leaders including pastors and legislators, a second-term overture to a community that overwhelmingly opposed his re-election.
"I believe in fresh starts," said Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., new chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has had an adversarial relationship with Bush but has a chance to get off on a better footing at a meeting Wednesday.
The meeting with black lawmakers comes after Bush is to receive about 20 black pastors and other community leaders Tuesday afternoon at the White House. Bush administration officials would not reveal identities of those at the meeting except to say the group includes some of the president's black supporters.
Exit polls showed that Bush received just 11 percent of the black vote in November's election, a slight increase over the 9 percent he received four years earlier.
"This is an opportunity for the president to talk about our priorities and the agenda," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "It's also an opportunity for the president to listen to issues of interest to these leaders."
During last year's political campaigns, Republican officials said they were making a more concerted effort to reach out to blacks through religious leaders. Bush campaign aides cited issues such as school vouchers and the president's support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage that could help him gain more support among blacks.
Support of Bush's social programs
Bush's efforts to steer more federal dollars to social programs conducted by so-called faith-based groups also has been received favorably by church leaders.
The Congressional Black Caucus, with a membership of 43 Democratic legislators, is meeting with Bush for only the third time as a group, although the president has met separately with individual members on other occasions.
The first meeting with the caucus came days after Bush's first inauguration in January 2001. At the other meeting, members of the caucus showed up at the White House in February 2004 to pressure the administration to preserve beleaguered President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's rule in Haiti.
Watt, who pledged to pursue more frequent meetings when he took over as chairman of the caucus in December, said the organization is looking for cooperation from the White House, not just conversation.
Black Caucus agenda
He said he plans to give Bush a written copy of the caucus agenda for the next two years, which focuses on eliminating disparities between blacks and whites in domestic and foreign policy.
"Unless the president can and is willing to assist us in achieving items on our agenda, there's no particular reason that the Congressional Black Caucus needs to be meeting with him," Watt said in an interview. "This is not about being able to say that we met with the president. We actually think it's about advancing and supporting our agenda."
Watt said he hopes the president will help support at least some caucus goals, although he said the president helped with nothing on the black caucus agenda in his first term. Watt said that might be because the caucus had not explained its goals to Bush clearly enough four years ago, which is why he plans to give Bush a written agenda Wednesday.
"That's why I want to make sure there are no excuses any more," Watt said. "Here it is, Mr. President. Come on, let's go."