Barbara Lee on What Was Left Unsaid in Obama’s State of the Union
In the premiere episode of The Real Capitol Hill, we sit down with Congresswoman Barbara Lee to get her thoughts on President Obama’s legacy and why many African Americans families are still waiting for their economic recovery
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN: Welcome to the Real Capitol Hill. I’m your host, Jessica Desvarieux.
On Tuesday night, President Obama delivered presumably his final State of the Union address. We had the opportunity to sit down with Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Congresswoman Lee represents California’s 13th Congressional District. She’s been the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She is, notably, the only member of either house of Congress to vote against the authorization of use of force following the September 11th attacks. Take a listen to her reaction to the president’s speech.
Well, Congresswoman Lee, you were present last night for the president’s final State of the Union address. I actually saw you greeting the president as he walked in. I wanted to ask you, though, during the president’s speech he didn’t make a mention of the Black Lives Matter movement once. At least, he didn’t name it, per se. Were you surprised by that?
BARBARA LEE: I was not surprised, and that’s why I was really pleased that my State of the Union guest was Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. And I believe the president, by acknowledging a lot of the work that needs to be done under his watch–he mentioned criminal justice reform, he mentioned immigration reform, he mentioned gun violence. You know, he mentioned some of the issues that Black Lives Matter, you know, have really been addressing. I would have loved to–I would have loved to have heard that mentioned in his speech.
But I think that what he talked about though, when he talked about protesters and seeking justice, and some of the policy initiatives, you know, I think he did a good job in laying out some of the issues. But of course, this is a movement that is a very important movement. Because when you look at Selma, when you look at the civil rights movement, it was always young people and it was always people on the outside who made the, the necessary changes. And so Black Lives Matter, they are really challenging the system on so many issues, such as structural racism, on criminal justice reform, on police misconduct. I mean, all the issues that, that we care about, Black Lives Matter is working on. And so I’m very pleased that they’re continuing with their peaceful protest, and I think that’s going to lead to some significant change.
DESVARIEUX: But Congresswoman Lee, some would argue that the president was painting a rosier picture about the economy than the reality, especially for working families, and especially for African-Americans. You know the numbers. Unemployment is the highest amongst black men. We have the gap between black families and white families, increasing over the president’s administration. So let’s talk about that, specifically. Do you think the president has done enough for the black community? And as a member of the Black Caucus, do you think you should have pushed him even further in terms of the policies he should have been advocating for?
LEE: I chaired the Congressional Black Caucus the first two years of President Obama’s presidency. And quite frankly, you know, we had, unfortunately, almost a depression that was about to occur. We had a very deep recession. So the president had to try to turn the country around, and to keep us from going into a depression. That he did. But under George Bush–and these are Bush’s economic policies that led to the subprime crisis, which caused the, caused us to lose our net worth and our wealth. We’ve lost all of our equity in our homes as a result of George Bush’s economic policies.
And so, the president has tried to be the president of all Americans. Oftentimes I think that we needed more targeted resources into communities.
DESVARIEUX: So, the president makes mention that the system is rigged in favor of the wealthy.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter. That the system is rigged in favor of the rich, or the powerful, or some special interest. … I believe we’ve got to reduce the influence of money in our politics so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our election. And if our existing approach to campaign finance reform can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution.
DESVARIEUX: But some would argue that the system’s always been rigged in favor of those with money. So what has really changed from then to now?
LEE: That’s why it’s been an uphill battle for African-Americans to run for public office, and people who don’t have money for women, for people of color. It’s really very difficult. It’s always been rigged, though. When you look at the system of corporate donations, PAC donations, what the limits are–I mean, we don’t have people who can do $5,000 a session, $27,000 primary and general. And it’s always been that, in terms of campaign contributions. It costs a lot of money to run for public office. Ads cost a lot of money, staffing costs a lot of money. I mean, you have to pay to run. It’s not that the money’s not being used correctly, but it’s just that, you know, it’s being used. You know, you have to raise so much just to run a campaign.
But now what has changed is you have corporations being able to donate money and not disclose it. Like the Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, corporations are people. And it’s like, come on, okay, how many corporations do African-Americans have that can hide behind being a person, and give contributions and not have to disclose it? Very few. And so it really–it’s a disincentive, also, because I know a lot of people who want to run for office, they say, no way. I’m not going to do that. The president doesn’t like it, I cannot stand it, but I have to do it. It’s really difficult.
DESVARIEUX: But is there really an incentive for incumbents to even advocate for reform? Because clearly it is favoring them. They, they have the connections. They’re connected to the elite. So why would there be any real momentum from both the Democrats and the Republicans to actually put forth legislation and advocate for legislation that would reform the campaign finance laws?
LEE: Yeah, well, if you have–you look at our legislation, we’ve got bills for public financing. Which we should have, that’s what I’ve been supporting since the ’90s. Public financing of campaigns. We have legislation to do that. And I think that we would see–if we had a House of Representatives and a Senate with a majority Democrats, I think you’d see some real change. I think we’re trying to overturn Citizens United–you know, I don’t know many Democrats who like this type of fundraising requirement to win elections. You know, this is not good. And it does erode our democracy, because it gives only those who can pay a voice at the table. And that’s just not fair, and that’s not what America is supposed to be about.
DESVARIEUX: But just to push back, a lot of people would say the Democrats did have an opportunity to reform this system, especially when the president first came into power. They had control of both the House and the Senate, yet they did nothing about campaign finance reform. So what would make us believe that if we just had more Democrats in power that the system would change?
LEE: We didn’t change it during that time because we were doing other things, first of all. And we couldn’t get the public finance–well, first, Citizens United didn’t happen until after the president was in the White House. So we didn’t have that Supreme Court decision where corporations could fund, you know, and contribute in undisclosed ways to candidates. So that wasn’t there.
But, quite frankly, public financing of campaigns, the public hasn’t demanded it. And so Congress, Democrats and Republicans, they’re not going to respond till they hear from their constituents. And I can tell you one thing, if every Democrat and every Republican heard from their constituents tomorrow that they insisted that they pass one of these public financing bills, they would pass.
DESVARIEUX: All right. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, thank you so much for being with us on our first episode of the Real Capitol Hill.
LEE: Thank you very much.
DESVARIEUX: For the Real News Network, I’m Jessica Desvarieux, bringing you the Real Capitol Hill. Thank you for watching.
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