Following President Obama’s final State of the Union address last night, Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, a Democrat and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. He endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008.
Interview Highlights: Rep. Emanuel Cleaver
What were your thoughts on the speech? Likes? Dislikes?
“I liked a lot of it. I particularly liked the part where the president dealt with the tone here in Washington and if the tone continues to go down into the ditch, then the nation is going to end up in the ditch. I think anybody that is in Washington and who keeps up with what’s going on realizes that we are at a higher level of political tribalism than perhaps any moment in the past of this great nation. I’m glad he mentioned the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership], though if I had to vote for it today I would not vote for it. And while I disagree with the president on the TPP, he let me and the rest of the members of Congress know how deeply committed he is to that trade agreement. I also think there was common ground mentioned when he talked about the need for criminal justice reform, and frankly I don’t know a Republican here on the Hill who has said that’s unnecessary. I think there is widespread belief based on a lot of things we’ve all seen on television and heard on the news over the last couple of years to suggest that we desperately need to reform our judicial system. Some of it is outdated and goes back, frankly to the beginning days of the republic, and in some cases copies what was done in England, and so that needs to be done and I think it was right of him to bring it up.”
Did you hear what you wanted to hear as an African-American last night?
“I agree with my good friend, Michael Eric Dyson, that I think the president is a little reluctant to delve into the issue of race, and with some good reason. He probably has done the best that he could realizing that even if he just says the word ‘black’, he’s going to be criticized for trying to racially divide the nation. And as ludicrous as that sounds, if we look back on his term in office we’ll see that those things have happened with great frequency. The president remembers clearly that his State of the Union was interrupted five years ago by a member of Congress who shouted out ‘you lie.’ He’s been called a ‘Black Sambo’ by members of Congress. Now in each instance when someone will say those things, they will apologize and say they spoke ‘in-artly’, but I think we have seen that his presidency, and that is not his fault, but it has often brought out racial issues that we thought were long past. And we find out that is not the case.”
The president said he had regrets that he wasn’t able to improve relations between the parties. I can hear some of his supporters saying ‘wait, you shouldn’t have to apologize for the racism that is already prevalent in response to your presidency.’
“That was exactly my initial reaction when I heard that. And then I moved quickly to the point where I understand that I know he is saying that ‘I know that, as a result of my presidency, some below-the-surface racism has been seeping out far more than any of us anticipated.’”
What are your thoughts on Republican Nikki Haley’s response, calling out Republicans for adding to the rhetoric that Obama decried.
“I think that the governor has once again stepped out and done something that has brought on an avalanche of criticism by members of her own party. She has been roundly criticized since her comments, which were mild but accurate. This is going to be tough for some of your listeners to understand or take, but I think a very racially-sensitive white president will be able to do far more than the first African-American president as it relates to the issue of race.”
- Emanuel Cleaver II, Democratic congressman representing Missouri’s 5th district, and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. He is also a United Methodist pastor. He tweets @repcleaver.
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