First-term President Obama bristled at criticism that he wasn't doing enough to support black-owned businesses, and declared, "I'm not the president of black America. I'm the president of the United States of America." His statement in March 2012 that "if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," set off a litany of criticism.
But something seems to have changed. Second-term President Obama explained, movingly and at length, what the George Zimmerman verdict meant to black America. And now he's not just talking more specifically and directly about race; he's also launching initiatives aimed at helping young boys and men of color.
"He has come to the conclusion, on this issue, that he does not have the right to remain silent, and I think he is looking at his legacy, and he knows there are a lot of young boys and girls of color looking up to to him," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
My Brother's Keeper, which Obama unveiled in the East Room on Thursday, will cull together resources from the private sector and charitable foundations to support strategies that help increase the chances that young black and Hispanic boys will graduate from high school, go to college, stay out of prison, and have less chance of being the victims of murders. Businesses and foundations have pledged an additional $200 million over five years, on top of $150 million they've already invested. Obama emphasized this isn't a government program, nor will the federal government play a primary role. His administration will look for ways it can support the initiative's goals through policy.
Obama called the issue "as important as any issue that I work on," one that "goes to the very heart of why I ran for president": to ensure opportunity for all. He connected the initiative to his own story, highlighting how much he related to young boys of color who grow up without fathers in their homes. He cited statistics to show how boys of color "have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that require unique solutions." One in two African-American boys grow up in a fatherless household; it's one in four for Latino boys. Black and Latino boys tend to read far below proficiency level by fourth grade, and boys of color are six times more likely to be victims of murder, according to the White House.
During Obama's first term, some civil-rights leaders privately expressed concern that he wasn't doing enough to help the black community. The Congressional Black Caucus had criticized the president for not undertaking targeted efforts to bolster the high black unemployment rate.
Now, a number of CBC members have noted that Obama has taken a different approach when talking about race in his second-term. Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings says the president's rhetoric and actions are not bolder, "but wiser."
"I don't think that the position that he's in right now allows that there's any difference in his thought, in his actions. But he has nothing left to lose," Hastings says.
Not focusing so much on "matters that could stoke the flames of divide" between various racial groups during Obama's first term "was a prudent decision," says Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga. "I'm glad the election is over. There are only three years left in the last term and now it is time to address this issue."
CBC Chairwoman Marcia Fudge said My Brother's Keeper is really an educational initiative, and to view it through the narrative that Obama is being bolder when talking about race is to take it out of context. "It's something that has long been needed, and I'm really, really happy about the fact that he's doing it," she said.
Many CBC members, who haven't been briefed on the nuts and bolts of My Brother's Keeper, are nonetheless hopeful that it will have a meaningful impact.
But, as with anything, there's always space to do more. Democratic Rep. James Clyburn says, "There's a lot of room to be bolder" in how the president addresses race. Specifically, Clyburn wants to see him use an executive order to enact programs that Congress won't move on, such as work-training programs for kids who don't want to go to college but want to learn skills such as plumbing.
Obama's relationship with the African-American community is complex. Black voters supported him nearly unanimously, with 93 percent voting for Obama in 2012, down just 2 points from 2008.
"Even when we disagree with the president we are very, very delicate in our criticism, because we don't want to aid and abet the element that is out calling him names," former CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver says.
Some public black intellectuals and leaders are not shy about criticizing the president on race. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, for instance, have been highly critical of Obama's handling of race and poverty. Others, such as The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, take issue with Obama's emphasis on personal responsibility when speaking to predominantly black audiences. "I think history will also remember his unquestioning embrace of 'twice as good' in a country that has always given black people, even under his watch, half as much," Coates writes.
Indeed, Obama continued that approach in his Thursday speech: "No matter how much the community chips in, it's ultimately going to be up to these young men and all the young men who are out there to step up and seize responsibility for their own lives."
At the same time, whenever Obama speaks about race, many—particularly conservatives—call it playing the "race card," or characterize it as divisive. Even the My Brother's Keeper initiative, with Bill O'Reilly attending the unveiling, has some on the Right saying the program amounts to state-sponsored discrimination by focusing only on boys and men of color.
These kinds of responses have made the Obama administration cautious on race, especially during the first term, Cleaver reasons. "He has been as far away, further away, on race than almost any president in the last quarter of a century," he says. "I think that the next African-American president ... will be able to move without fear of discussing any group in America, including members of his or her race."
Obama is stuck in the middle. He, perhaps more than any other occupant of the White House, understands the legacy of racism and knows that the forces that allowed a black man to become president have also made it so challenging for him, more than any other president, to address race specifically. The trail-blazing quality of his presidency both enables and limits him.
At the start of his presidency, Obama recorded a video message to American school children, asking them to work hard and take responsibility for their education. It spurred a conservative backlash among those who felt it improper for the president to insert himself in such a way into the nation's classrooms.
"When I saw that, and the way they dealt with him on that, they were basically saying, 'How dare you tell our kids what to do?' " Cummings said. "I think he walks a very thin line, is my point."