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Obama announces new education program focused on African Americans

Locked in a tough re-election battle with Mitt Romney, President Barack Obama aimed to energize his core supporters – African American voters – by delivering a rousing speech and unveiling a new executive order at the Urban League’s annual convention in New Orleans Tuesday night.

The president told the largely African American crowd of roughly 3,700 people that the executive order will seek to improve educational achievement for African Americans at all levels “so every child has greater access to a complete and competitive education from the time they’re born to the time, all through the time they get a career” the president said to cheers.

An administration official tells NBC News the order will create a new White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans that will “work across Federal agencies and with partners and communities nationwide to produce a more effective continuum of education programs for African American students.”

The official added that the initiative would be housed in the Education Department, which will work with the Executive Office and other Cabinet agencies to identify practices that will improve African Americans’ achievement in schools and colleges. The administration official did not yet know how much funding the program would receive but said more information would be released Thursday when the president signs the executive order.

The president has previously received criticism from some black leaders for not doing enough to help the African American community as rates for school dropout and unemployment among African Americans continue to be higher than the national numbers.

For example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the dropout rate for African American students ages 16 to 25 was 8 percent in 2010; by comparison, white students in that age range had a 5.1 percent dropout rate. Further, the unemployment rate for African Americans is 14.4 percent, significantly higher than the national average of 8.2 percent.

Last August, Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) told a crowd of Congressional Black Caucus members in Detroit, “We want to give the president every opportunity to show what he can do and what he’s prepared to lead on. But our people are hurting and the unemployment rate is unconscionable.”

Obama has in the past responded to such criticism. In an interview on BET last September he answered a question about why he didn’t create more policies specifically targeted at African Americans: “That’s not how America works,” the president replied, “America works when all of us are pulling together and everybody is focused on making sure that every single person has opportunity.”

When asked if this latest executive order is timed to mobilize African American voters ahead of the election, one White House official said it is “one more step along a path that the president has been walking.” The official cited the fact that the president enacted the Race to the Top initiative and new flexibility on No Child Left Behind, actions aimed at improving educational opportunities for all students including minorities, according to the Official.

On Tuesday, the president admitted there was still a lot more work and asked the Urban League crowd for their continued support: “If we don’t keep fighting for better jobs and a better future, who will? That’s our challenge. We don’t quit.”

From the Romney camp, spokeswoman Tara Wall responded to the speech, saying, "As black Americans, we all take pride in Barack Obama's historic election - but unfortunately his performance as president has not matched that enthusiasm."

Exit polls show that 95 percent of African American voters supported president Obama in 2008. Analysts believe he will need them to turn out in similarly large numbers if he hopes to win key swing states such as Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina.

The president wrapped up his remarks with a familiar plea for voters to turnout in November; “I still believe in you and if you still believe in me I ask you stand with me. March with me. Fight with me and … I promise we will finish what we started, turn this economy around, seize our future and remind the world why the United States of America is the greatest nation on earth.”