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Obama to mark U.S. civil rights law that paved way for his presidency

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to Bladensburg High School in Bladensburg, Maryland April 7, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to Bladensburg High School in Bladensburg, Maryland April 7, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland and Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama this week celebrates the civil rights advances of 50 years ago which laid the groundwork for him to become the first black president, but his own record in making life better for the African-American community that catalyzed his election is mixed.

Obama will join former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in speaking at the Lyndon Baines Johnson presidential library in Austin, Texas, this week to mark a half century since Johnson's landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

As the first African-American president, Obama is the physical embodiment of racial progress that Johnson brought about. The civil rights law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the creation of Medicare were instrumental in improving equality for racial minorities and putting desegregation in the past.

"What you can say is that trio of laws allowed for the ascent of Barack Obama to the presidency and any other person of color who might follow in his wake," said Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ library.

Obama's top success for African-Americans was gaining passage of the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare law that, after a rocky rollout, is intended as a safety net for millions of Americans. In addition, efforts by Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, to aggressively enforce civil rights laws are welcome in the African-American community.

But creating jobs for black Americans has been a struggle. The annual State of Black America report by the National Urban League, entitled "One Nation Underemployed: Jobs Rebuild America," said African-Americans still lag far behind in jobs and opportunity.

The report said 20.5 percent of African-American workers are either jobless or working part-time, compared with 18.4 percent for Hispanic workers and 11.8 percent for white workers.

Obama's second-term agenda of reducing income equality through an increase in the minimum wage, for example, is aimed at addressing that disparity. But he's got a long way to go.

"The president has taken a number of steps in trying to close the gap that exists in this country but there's a great deal of unfinished business as he looks to his remaining 2-1/2 years in office," said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.

Comparisons between Obama and Johnson are inevitable as the 44th president prepares to visit the library of the 36th on Thursday.

Johnson, a former Senate majority leader who schmoozed friends and opponents and sometimes used hardball tactics to win support, stands in sharp contrast to the professorial Obama, who relies heavily on speeches to sway public opinion.

Senior Obama administration officials say that when Johnson's and Obama's legislative records are put side by side, they are not all that different.

When he had Democratic majorities in Congress in his first two years, Obama gained passage of his signature healthcare law, an economic stimulus bill, Wall Street reform and more. He has faced far more difficulty since Republicans gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2010 elections.

White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said all presidents face unique challenges: While Johnson had a large Democratic majority, he "faced a lot of deep opposition within his own party to the civil rights legislation and had to build a bipartisan majority to pass the bill."

The civil rights debate now extends to issues like attempting to establish a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented people in the United States. This is unfinished business for Obama, who now views it as a long shot that Congress will pass immigration reform this year.

"On civil rights, he has struggled with the immigration bill that would take 12 million people out of the shadows and give them rights they don't have," said Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who generally supports Obama.

Obama's boosters say the president in some respects has experienced racism himself in pushing his priorities.

Assistant House Democratic Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina, the top African-American in Congress, said he believes a lot of people in the country want to see Obama fail and he attributes this in part to racism.

"There are a lot of people who believe that certain positions are reserved for only white people, and the presidency is one of them," Clyburn said.

Obama, while seeing his overall job approval rating slide into the 40s, is still enjoying overwhelming support from the African-American community.

A recent Reuters-Ipsos poll said 72 percent of African-Americans approve of the job he is doing, including 72 percent on the economy, 63 percent on foreign policy, and 66 percent on dealing with Congress.

"In part, his major contribution is just being there," said Senator Angus King, a Maine independent. "And in part, his major contribution is not being there as a civil rights figure, but as a man who is president who happens to be black."

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Caren Bohan and Cynthia Osterman)

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