9:07 am Sep. 9, 2011
On Thursday evening, shortly after President Obama implored a joint session of Congress to pass a new $447 billion dollar jobs bill, Representative Charlie Rangel said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the speech.
“The thing that impressed me the most was that instead of talking about Republicans and Democrats, he talked about American values,” Rangel said in a phone interview shortly after the address.
The president began his speech by trying to transcend the “political circus” of the last few months, which had culminated the previous week in an unprecedented request from House Speaker John Boehner that the president re-schedule his address so as not to conflict with a Republican presidential debate. Obama grudgingly obliged, which only furthered the notion among liberals in his own party that the president is a serial surrenderer of his prerogatives to the opposition.
It’s unclear whether Obama’s $447 billion request will be enough to quell those intra-party grumblings, especially since the speech was comprised of large-scale but ideologically moderate policy proposals—many purposefully borrowed from past Republican bills—and included “modest adjustments” to sacred Democratic programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
But there seemed to be enough there, in the aggregate, to encourage the Paul Krugman wing of the party and the political commentariat.
Obama did his best to elevate infrastructure spending to the level of “rugged individualism” in the narrative arc of America, recalling Abraham Lincoln and the transcontinental railroad, and he did it without ever actually mentioning the word “infrastructure.”
For his part, Rangel didn’t attach much importance to the actual dollar figure being sought by the president, and he refused to entertain a question about whether the amount, which exceeded some smaller estimates that were bandied about earlier in the day, would serve as a welcome sign to his fellow liberals.
“That is subjective,” he said. “No matter how big or small it would be, without the cooperation of Republicans, it doesn’t really make any difference. It my opinion, most of the speech that the president was talking about was the strength and values of the United States of America. How are you going to have a small program for that? Or a big program?”
Rangel said Americans don’t really care about the pricetag anyway.
“They don’t want to hear about costs, they don’t want to hear about what Republicans did or what Democrats didn’t do," he said. "They want to know, can I depend on the government to help me out in a financial situation that I and my family are not responsible for? They want to know, not just do we feel their pain, but what the hell are we doing about it?”
And, without prompting, Rangel said he rejected some recent Republican rhetoric—first advanced by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor—that Congress should find dollar-for-dollar savings commensurate with any disaster relief, just as a family would have to make cuts in its own budget in the event of some personal catastrophe.
“When any member of Congress says, ‘we will help during this horrific earthquake or flood, but we have to first find the money,’ hey, that’s not what people do to their family,” Rangel said. “They run to the rescue and they know we’ll find a way to recover.”
Referring to what was a lack of Republican applause for the president's speech to Congress, Rangel said, “The president may not have impressed many Republicans in the House, or the Senate for that matter, and I saw that they sat down on many of the issues that we were applauding. But I do know one thing, the ones sitting down did not represent the values of the United States of America.”
He said politicians had been given too much responsibility in the recent budget debates, and called on the private sector—particularly business and religious groups—to involve themselves more.
“I think that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce should be calling up their longtime Republican friends who have left them in terms of encouraging tax reform, trade, and assistance to small business, and they should say, ‘We don’t like these Democrats, we don’t like Obama, but these are programs that we’ve been screaming for. Let’s still fight in November of next year, but let’s not let businesses suffer more and people be on unemployment longer, let’s come in there and do what’s best for the country,’” he said.
“I would think that some priests and rabbis will take enough time away from studying the religious virtues of same-sex marriage and what a woman does with her own body and to just include in that agenda poverty, sickness, education, homes, hope, trust, government responsibility,” he said.
Asked whether he heard anything in the speech that spoke to the specific complaints of African-Americans, Rangel said “No.”
After a period of silence, I asked whether he was bothered by that.
“Well, not in the sense that I truly believe that once the president says he’s going to target the resources to the people and the community that are most in need, I don’t really have to be reminded of my color,” he said.
Rangel has not been as conspicuously critical of the president as some other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who conducted a "jobs tour" to counter Obama's bus tour, but Rangel said he was sympathetic to them.
“Well, when you’re feeling pain, you don’t want to feel that you’re ignored because you’re the same color as the president," he said. "And so, sometimes, those of us who are the victims have to prove that we—just because we like you—doesn’t mean we’re satisfied with the condition of the country.”
“I think the newspapers are so shocked and surprised that blacks can independently judge the conduct of a president regardless of whether he’s white or black,” he said. “Maxine [Waters] gives anybody hell, and that’s what her constituents expect her to do, and we respect her for it.”
Rangel expressed considerably less respect for the Republican field vying to succeed Obama, when asked if he had seen Wednesday’s presidential debate.
“My staff always tells me that I am too candid in discussing these. What paper are you with?” he said, before taking another long pause.
“Let me say this: As an American, I really feel embarrassed that the world is seeing who we are entertaining for president and leader of the free world. I really think that the high standards that have been expected of America was shattered for those people who didn’t look at them as Republicans, but looked at them as candidates to be not only our leader, but the symbol of justice and fairness all over the world.
“There may be some political advantage to my president and my party, but to foreigners, we all are Americans, and so … ”
At that Mr. Rangel abruptly interrupted himself and said he had to go.