The Washington Post

State of the Union: Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons reacts

Jan 26, 2011

Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons will be online Wednesday, Jan. 26, at Noon ET to discuss reaction to President Obama's State of the Union address.

Thank you to the Washington Post for having me here. Surprise! I thought the President did a great job last night. I've been saying for months that he needed to give the country a vision for success. We need to reclaim the American Dream. His ideas for Winning the Future start to get us there. It was very optimistic and it had a discussion of his values -- what he cares about:  Education, innovation, infrastructure, reforming the government and taking responsibility for the deficit.

It seems to me that the largest difference between the policies of the two parties is that under Republicans the wealth get wealthier while under Democrats there is some effort to improve the lot of those less well off. If Obama's speech even hinted at this point I sure missed it. While I understand the need for cooperation with the Republicans, what can Obama actually do to address the increasing income disparity problem?

The first thing we have to do as a country is grow the pie. We have to restart job growth so that people have opportunity. The President talked last night about reforming the tax code so the corporate types don't get off the hook from paying taxes. That will help. Finally, the focus on education and training our people to succeed in the new industries is critical.

..,..last night used the pejorative "Obamacare" five times. She fabricated, by omitting some facts several times. How large of a population slice was she speaking to and how seriously do you believe the rest of the nation takes her?

I don't think Michele Bachmann speaks to that many people who are PERSUADABLE. A lot of the people who like her are Republicans who are looking for a champion. The folks in the middle who are trying to make ends meet and worried about their kids schools are not looking for ideology, they want effectiveness.

While it's not mandatory for Supreme Court Justices to attend SOTU speeches, did hurt feelings from what President Obama said in last year's speech or political differences have anything to do with Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas not attending this year? During an unusual time of Democrat and Republican politicians putting aside partisanship and sitting together, I hope those who dispense ultimate justice in this country weren't absent because there might have been a few critical sentences or points of disagreement in the speech. If these three Justices did not attend because of something said in the speech of last year, it was a missed opportunity to show they can rise above politics to make legal decisions dispassionately -- in accordance with their oath.

I think the State of the Union is a moment for everyone to come together regardless of ideology. Too sad those conservative justices didn't show up.


I worked for Al Gore and the first time I saw Geroge W. Bush at a speech I was so mad at him I almost didn't stand up when he came in. Then I realized he was the president and you stand for the office even when you don't like the man. The Justices should do the same.

It's looking less and less likely that there will be even just one African-American senator in the 113th Congress. Granted there is the unexpected (who would have predicted Rod Blagojevich appointing Roland Burris!?!) and there a few names out there (Michael Williams in Texas, Frank Borges in Connecticut, Sandra Kennedy in Arizona) but none of them seem to be top-tier candidates if they run. I should also state that I'm not somebody who believes that any African American is good and want a well-qualified and highly supported by the voters of his/her state. Should I be more hopeful that there will be an African-American senator in the 113th Congress since I'm not very hopeful right now.

I'm not sure about getting an African American senator next time. We never know who is in the cue. It could be someone like my friend Steveh Horsford in Nevada who is the Senate Majority leader there. It could also be a Republican. Minorities are running pretty well under the GOP banner lately!

I don't understand why recent Democratic presidents don't make use of the persuasive techniques Lyndon Johnson used to such great effect to get legislation through.

It's tougher now than it was when LBJ was president. The party doesn't control the campaign process as much. Now candidates raise their own money and it's much more open, not as many smoky back rooms. It's good for democracy but harder to control.

What did you think of the Republcan Response by Jim Ryan?

I thought Ryan did a good job. he was light on specifics but he presented himself well. My problem is with his program. We can't cut education by 30%. It's silly. And cutting the budget this year could cause a second recession. Read the stories today about Great Britain.

What did you think of Obama's "Sputnik moment" analogy?

It seemed like a good analogy to me. President Kennedy really got America goosed to do something with that speech. The president could have set out a more concrete program, but he gave us a vision and an inspiration to ensure that America would be on top for the rest of the century. We have a lot of work to do.

I wish the president would have done more on our individual responsibility to make America more competitive. There's a lot we can do that we don't need government for!

It seemed that yesterday's prevailing thought was that Michele Bachmann would make Paul Ryan look better but it seems both Congresspeople just make President Obama's speech look that much more inspirational, any thoughts? P.S.  I think you meant you don't know who is in the queue.

Thanks for the catch!


I thought Bachmann's speech was fine other than it looked like she was staring oat our collective foreheads. She was more specific than usual an dnot as bombastic.

The problem is we can't cut the deficit as much as they want this year and we have to include defense cuts and taxes. There is no other way to do it.

Do you think the economy is looking up? How much is President Obama's fate tied to it?

The economy is looking better. I think the pres should get a lot of credit for helping to stave off a depression and for getting us growing - even though it's not fast enough.

Now he has to stay focused so that he gets credit when things turn around even more and he needs to continue to be disciplined about talking about jobs.

Hi Jamal -- Thanks for taking our questions today. This is slightly off the subject of the SOTU, but there's some buzz that she might take on Amy Klobuchar here in Minnesota in 2012. While Bachmann is a phenom elsewhere, I think it's safe to say that many Minnesotans cringe every time she opens her mouth and are dumbfounded that she's gotten as far as she has. Could she really unseat Klobuchar?

You probably know better than me, being out there, but Amy is TOUGH!

I was caught off guard by the reaction of those present military officials when the president spoke about repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. They neither stood, applauded or even cracked a slight smile. Was I reading into that wrong or is that sort of cold reception the general consensus around the repeal?

The tradition for the military is to be stoic - just sit there and not react to political statements. They are there as a testament to the commander in chief but should not be political props.

Jamal, the president has drawn harsh criticism for not specifically addressing issues that plague the African- American community, namely high school graduation rates and unemployment. A few months ago he signed an executive order addressing the issues that Latinos face when it comes to education and language barriers. Why is he staying away from addressing these issues within the African-American community and will he lose a portion of this demographic as a result of it? Also, I live in Nevada and work in politics and know Steven too. I would love to see him as our next senator!

The president talks about African American issues from time to time.  Go back and look at some of those father's day speeches. 

A broader point though - we have had politicians TALK about black issues for decades, but the situation sometimes is better, sometimes not. I'm more interested in what he does and I think he has been tackling really big issues:

- covering health care for more people

- trying to fix the schools with Race To The Top

- Saving government jobs with stimulus money. You know how many black people work for state and local governments that were bailed out last year?

The big test for him in my eyes will be on education and small business growth. We need more African American entrepreneurs and need them to be more successful.

I believe that President Obama has the correct long- term plan: we need to create jobs now to keep our country from falling into an employment recession, yet we then need to reduce federal spending to keep our debt from engulfing our economy. Unfortunately, these in politics appear to be opposite messages, and it is hard in this sound-bite era to explain this. How do you believe the president's message is getting across, and how well does the public understand this?

The president is trying to answer it. I like your approach. First focus on jobs, then the deficit. We can't cut spending now we have to get the economy on more solid ground. once we have growth we can focus on the deficit. Read my friend Maya MacGuineas at the Center for Responsible Budget. She's very smart on this.

QUOTE: "Minorities are running pretty well under the GOP banner lately!" What's interesting about that is candidate versus electorate. While Susana Martinez and Brian Sandoval won governships, they didn't get more support from Hispanic Americans in their respective states then a generic Republican. Also note that Muslim American Republican politicians are leaving the party to become Democrats

you're right, minorites are not getting mostly minority votes. That's because the GOP is focused on personalities over programs in my mind. They are playing with fire in the long run. If the GOP doesn't get a better position on immigration and tolerance they are in for a big shock when the demographic timebomb explodes.

You claim that Ryan was not specific on spending cuts; yet, Obama, himself, only spoke in platitudes and even rejected some of the recommendations from his own commission (i.e., Social Security). How can the country take him serious if he won't be specific with us?

The President was more  specific than you suggest. He talked about a 5 year domestic spending freeze to save $400B and getting 80% of US electricity from clean sources by 2035. There is more to hear from him but the GOP has to tell people HOW they want to accomplish these goals. If Paul Ryan had told Americans that he wants to turn Medicare into a voucher program and cut education by 30-40% I think people would have thrown something at their TV's!

I was a little disappointed that the president didn't talk more about gun control or mental health services as part of health-care reform in the wake of the Tucson shootings. What are your thoughts on why he avoided that and do you think it was a missed opportunity.

Gun control is tough for politicians. Most people are for some reasonable gun safety measures like reducing the size of a clip from 31 bullets to 10, but they are drowned out by the people who are against anything.

Most of us who want to prevent gun violence don't vote on it, but the people who only want to protect their right to own ANY gun with ANY kind of ammo are REALLY focused.

What does that actually mean? From local government to state to federal, all we keep hearing about is growing jobs. Jobs aren't plants! They just don't pop up out of the ground. When can we get some specifics about what plans are in place, a time line and even an idea of when all of the "job growth" initiatives are in place, so we will know that companies should start hiring, small businesses can start hiring, the governments will start hiring?

most small biz people I talk to are concerned about access to capital.  The government can give direct aid as they are doing at the Small Business Administration and can incentivize lending. Also growing jobs means putting money into communities so that it will circulate.  Once people have an income, they spend more thus starting the econmic scycle tht produces more jobs -- unless we don't make anything and it all goes to Asia or Mexico!

Do you think this Congress will be different from the past in light of President Obama's message and the recent spurt of bipartisanship fervor?

I think our lack of bipartisanship problem is deeper than that. We used to have two parties that had liberals and conservatives in them. There were liberal Republicans and conservative Dems. Now we just have a conservative party and mostly liberal one. Not a lof incentive to corss over. We're more like a parliamentary legislature (like in England) but we don't have parliamentary rules. It's a BIG tough problem.

Soc. Sec. and Medicare are the elephants in the room. They are huge entitlements that MUST be dealt with if we want our fiscal sanity back. Democrats like yourself love to bash Republicans like Ryan who actually have a plan in place to fix Soc. Sec. and Medicare. What's the Democrat's plan? Can you be specific?

My Democratic friends may not like my answer but there are things we can do. We should look at means testing or lowering benefits for people who make more money. Someone who makes $1million a year maynot need to get the same benefit as someone who makes $35,000 a year.

We can also look at raising the retirement age, but we have to find a way to protect the people who work with their bodies from being stuck working longer. Those of us who work mostly with our brains could work longer without much sacrifice.

Ultimately we have to do something. We can't afford to spend so much money on one part of the population when we can't invest in our young people who will have to make the money to pay for all of this in the future anyway.

So what if some people are against anything to do with gun control. Some people are for gun control, at least of some kind, like your clip example. No one could have drowned out the president as he was speaking. It was his change to make a sane and legitimate case. Some of us voted for him for the very issues he now refuses to address.

If you stack Obama up with another candidate and find you like the other candidate better, you should vote for him or her.

I'm just saying it's tough because most people whoa re for gun safety laws don't vote on that issue alone, but the people who are against them do.

Ultimately every political leader has to decide what the most improtant parts of his agenda are and do the best he can to achieve those. Right now President Obama looks focused on jobs and the economy where most of the American people are.

I would love it if we passed the ban on 31 cartirdge clips. seems like common sense to me.

Jamal, Sputnik is from the 1950's. Many of my colleagues at work didn't know what the president was talking about.


I guess that's why we need more education money!

I think a new tradition should be instituted. Hold the applause until the end. I hate the applause! It seems to lend a circus atmosphere to what should be a serious moment as is evidenced by its draw to a world audience. It also adds fits and starts to a speech that is (should be) full of information that is quite relevant to everyone in the audience. I understand the politics behind the applause (or holding thereof) but for this television viewing audience member, it is a total turnoff. I have taken to simply reading the transcript the next day. Unfortunately, that doesn't lend itself to watching the president's body language or hearing his inflection. Thoughts?

It's hard to limit the audience reaction with a rule, but I get your point.

I actually thought the speech sagged a bit in the middle last night and ostly because there could have been more applause. Maybe that was dampened by all of the party mixing. Sounds like you would have liked it though!

Back to that part on guns,  I should say for the record that the firm at work at does a lot of work on this issue, so I should issue that disclaimer.

Seems like there wasn't about foreign policy in SOTU? I thought Barack Obama was supposed to rebrand and reopen American diplomacy?

Don't you think the president has already rebranded foreign policy. In George W. Bush's last years people were protesting and throwing shoes at him (which I deplored as an American). Now people celebrate and clamor to get close to our president when he travels.

I'm with you on foreign policy in the speech though. I wish he would have spoken more about it. He did lay out a pretty firm post to Al Qaeda - We will not relent, we will not waiver and we will defeat you.

To be fair, Thomas and Scalia never go. Alito is the only new absence - and I'm happy he didn't. Every move of his would have been analyzed after last year.

Alito should have gone to show that he was mature enough to sit there like the rest of the justices. It would have been good for his brand.

Chris Matthews said last night that Obama is going to do a separate speech just on guns soon.

We'll see!

This was fun. Thanks again for having me.

I think we have a lot of work to do in this country. The American people don't really need government to do everything for us but there are things government must do because nobody else will. We need to invest in education and we need to defeat Al Qaeda. No private business will do that.

In the end though our future lies in our own hands and we need to do a lot of the hard work in our own commuities and be serious about what sacrifices we are willing to make so that  the whole country will be better off. In order to dig out of this hole all of us will have to pay more and/or give up something we like from governement. It's the only way to make sure my 7 year old niece and all of the other kids can have a shot at a country as good as the one we have.

Thanks again for having me.

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Jamal Simmons
Jamal Simmons is a Democratic strategist and principal at the Raben Group, a legal and public policy consulting firm.
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