Possibly Obama’s only real interest as president: helping minority youth

President Barack Obama, joined by former Los Angeles Laker Magic Johnson, second from left, and others take part in a meeting in the White House where the president discussed his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative

President Barack Obama’s new initiative targeting disadvantaged black and Latino young men marks his latest attempt to use the “soft power” of the presidency to advance his agenda amid partisan gridlock.

It is a tool the White House is likely to repeatedly employ for the remainder of Obama’s term, with plans in the works for public-private partnerships on early-childhood education and other economic issues.

With his agenda stalled in Congress, Obama has turned to his ability to draw on businesses, philanthropies and other forces beyond Washington to buttress the work of the government. The approach is seen as less controversial than the executive orders he has signed to accomplish his goals, which could be subject to legal challenges.

“I don’t think it’s always an innocuous power. But it can be used, especially by a lame duck president who is stymied by gridlock in Congress, as a way to say, ‘Hey, I still have this megaphone and I have this way to convene people that nobody else does,’ ” said Tevi Troy, who was a domestic-policy adviser to President George W. Bush.

Since vowing in his State of the Union address to exercise what he dubbed his “convening power,” Obama has gained commitments from businesses to hire the long-term unemployed and gathered more than 100 college presidents to devise ways to make higher education more affordable to low-income students.

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The program he announced Thursday, called My Brother’s Keeper, is another such public-private partnership. It is designed to provide economic and educational opportunities to young men and boys of color through commitments from foundations, business leaders and public officials.

Obama said that philanthropists have committed $200 million to the project, which will be overseen by a new White House task force led by Broderick Johnson, who is secretary of the Obama cabinet.

“The plain fact is there are some Americans who, in the aggregate, are consistently doing worse in our society—groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that require unique solutions,” Mr. Obama said Thursday at a White House event. “And by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century in this country are boys and young men of color.”

The initiative will focus on issues ranging from nutrition and health to education and youth violence. The goal, White House officials said, is for federal agencies, including the Department of Education and the Justice Department, to assess government policies and regulations to find ways to give momentum to the initiative’s agenda.

Obama’s unveiling of My Brother’s Keeper drew some big names, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gen. Colin Powell, former basketball star and entrepreneur Magic Johnson, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.

One element of the president’s use of “soft power” that appeals to conservatives, who often are at odds with Mr. Obama, is its reliance on resources outside the federal government.

Indeed Obama made the point several times, stressing that “just to be clear, My Brother’s Keeper is not some big, new government program.” A White House spokesman said My Brother’s Keeper doesn’t require any new federal funds.

“Conservatives should welcome the use of the bully pulpit to suggest and to energize community volunteer action,” said C. Boyden Gray, who was White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush. “What conservatives wouldn’t agree with is if they’re commanding major budget resources to do this.” Obama cast the initiative as part of his broader focus on expanding economic opportunity.

Chris Lehane, who worked in the Clinton White House, said the use of soft presidential power works most effectively when it’s part of an overarching governing theme, and “you use your convener-in-chief role to advance that.” President Clinton’s post-presidency project, the Clinton Global Initiative, was an outgrowth of his use of “soft power,” he noted.

“CGI grew out of Clinton using the White House as a convening role…He’d bring other entities together and get them to agree or commit to something, and then he’d go out there and announce it, which is exactly what CGI has done on an international stage,” Lehane said.

Previous presidents have similarly employed “soft power.” President George H.W. Bush created the Points of Light initiative, which promotes volunteerism. George W. Bush spearheaded a faith-based initiative, which his former aides say the Obama White House has largely dismantled.

Bush also brought together the heads of different pharmaceutical companies during the Avian Flu epidemic to make vaccine doses more reliable, Mr. Troy said.

Obama’s aides studied the use of such power by George W. Bush and Mr. Clinton, said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior White House adviser.

Creating ways to improve the lives of young men and boys of color is a personal issue for Mr. Obama, who was raised by a single mother. He said when he met with black male youth attending a program in Chicago last year, “I could see myself in these young men.”

Obama said, “I made bad choices. I got high, not always thinking about the harm it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.”