Obama Says People in Charge of Helping Themselves
July 16, 2009 - 4:37 PMHeralding the NAACP for a century of courage and progress, President Barack Obama will come before the nation's oldest civil rights organization Thursday with a message of shared responsibility: Government can help communities, but people are in charge of helping themselves.
Obama, the nation's first black president, is to deliver comments over dinner at the civil rights group's 100 convention.
The speech is Obama's first so directly linked with race since he took office; the White House says Obama has worked on it for about two weeks.
"It's about, in large part, the courage that it took to start the NAACP 100 years ago, and some of the things that they've gone through in the organization and in the community, and what the next 100 years looks like," White House spokesman Bill Burton told reporters traveling with Obama.
Obama will make clear that while the government can help, "individuals will have to take responsibility," according to Burton. The president is expected to make that point, in particular, on matters of education and economic opportunity. He is also expected to address health care, his dominant domestic priority.
Implicit in the appearance, Obama is seeking the backing of the powerful NAACP and its members for his ambitious domestic agenda.
For all the shared interests, White House aides cautioned that the group's leadership had not guaranteed its support of all of Obama's priorities.
"We will be the people at the end of the day who help make him do what he knows he should do," NAACP President Benjamin Jealous told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this year. "We will help create the room for (Obama) to fulfill, I think, his own aspirations for his presidency."
Obama also plans to urge young people to aspire to surpass their role models and resist the lure of mediocrity.
White House aides said the president did not intend to introduce new programs or policy, instead striking an inspirational if restrained tone.
It was not an occasion for a raucous celebration of his history-making campaign, officials said before he flew to New York.
"I think the first speech to black America, the first speech to white America, the first speech to America was the inaugural address," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Wednesday.
Every president since 1909 has visited the NAACP at least once, although some more frequently than others. President George W. Bush skipped the first five meetings before eventually addressing the group in 2006. For Obama, skipping his first invitation and the centennial festivities was not an option.
The president on Thursday was also doing interviews with predominantly black media outlets ahead of his comments to the NAACP.
Jealous has pushed his organization to expand its civil rights work beyond black causes to broader human rights. Some members of his organization have resisted, arguing that much work remains to create racial equality in this country.
"Our agenda as we head into our second century as a civil rights organization is also to revive our legacy as a human rights organization," he told the AP.
White House aides cautioned that Obama wouldn't wade too deeply into those matters, aware his role was not to dictate the organization's mission but to celebrate it, similar to a message Obama shared by video with the group earlier this year.
"It's humbling to think of the progress made possible by ordinary folks who refused to settle for the world as it was and instead stood up and fought to remake the world as it should be," Obama said. "It's humbling to know that it is only because of the men and women of the NAACP, only because of those freedom riders and civil rights workers, those protesters, preachers and teachers, that I can come before you as president of the United States."
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