WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday rebutted critics who say he isn't showing enough compassion toward black America, citing his health care effort as one example he says "will be hugely important" for blacks.
Obama said another example is the billions of dollars in aid to states included in the economic stimulus bill, money that was used to save thousands of teachers, firefighters and police officers from losing their jobs. He said many of those workers are black.
"So this notion, somehow, that because there wasn't a transformation overnight that we've been neglectful is just simply, factually not accurate," Obama said in an Oval Office interview with April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks.
But the president acknowledged there are limits to what a president can do for any class of people.
"The only thing I cannot do is, by law, I cannot pass laws that say 'I'm just helping black folks.' I'm the president of the entire United States," Obama said, giving his standard answer to questions about the economic and other disparities facing blacks.
"What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need," he said. "That in turn is going to help lift up the African-American community."
Black members of Congress have begun pressing their demands that the nation's first African-American president do more for minorities hard hit by the recession, noting the billions of dollars spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to prop up big banks and large corporations.
Nationally, unemployment stands at 10 percent while 15.6 percent of blacks are jobless.
Obama said the grumbling was justified because the U.S. has just begun to emerge from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. At the same time, he said polls show overwhelming support among blacks for what his administration is trying to do.
The president said the health care bill the Senate is expected to pass this week will help the one in five blacks who don't have health insurance – almost double the general population – by making coverage more affordable.
"This will be hugely important for the African-American community," he said, also citing increased spending on education.
Asked to comment on the state of black America, Obama paraphrased author Charles Dickens when he said it continues to be the best of times and the worst of times. Still, he said he was optimistic about the future.
"But it's going to take work. It was never going to be done just because we elected me," he said.