Melody Barnes has worked closely with Pres. Barack Obama, starting in the 2008 campaign as part of the presidential transition team and on into the White House from day one of his administration. She has been his go-to person for domestic issues as director of the Domestic Policy Council.
MR. MARTIN: My next guest has worked closely with Pres. Barack Obama, starting in the 2008 campaign as part of the presidential transition team and on into the White House from day one of his administration. Melody Barnes has been his go-to person for domestic issues as director of the Domestic Policy Council. This is her third visit to “Washington Watch” and her last as being an official in the Administration.
Melody, welcome back.
MS. MELODY BARNES: Great. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank –
MR. MARTIN: All right.
MS. BARNES: — you.
MR. MARTIN: You – you sort of have the look on your face as in, “Man! I get to rest now, get to sleep in late; and I get to,” frankly –
MS. BARNES: [Chuckles.]
MR. MARTIN: — “go party.”
MS. BARNES: [Laughs.] Definitely, sleep in late. Right now, I have a meeting starting at 7:30 every morning. I’m looking forward to sleeping well past 7:30.
MR. MARTIN: Yeah, but also getting in –
MS. BARNES: [Chuckles.]
MR. MARTIN: — a[n] early tee time on the golf course, too[?] – [crosstalk].
MS. BARNES: When the weather warms up –
MR. MARTIN: Those things —
MS. BARNES: — yeah.
MR. MARTIN: — come on. Real golfers have cold gear.
MS. BARNES: [Chuckles.]
MR. MARTIN: All right. Now, let’s – let’s get right into it.
Obviously, when it comes to domestic policy, economics was at the top of the agenda.
MS. BARNES: Um-hum.
MR. MARTIN: When you look back in terms of the – the – the – the things put in place, is o- — is one of the biggest mistakes [o]n your part that decision by the economic advisors to say, “If you put the stimulus package in place, unemployment drops to 8 percent”? That seemed to drive this whole narrative. And so your sense of, really, the economic policies and some of the things that worked and didn’t work.
MS. BARNES: Well, the economic policy and the focus on the stimulus – we walked in the door knowing that things were bad and making assumptions and calculations based on that information. After the President was elected – and I remember sitting in the transition office in Chicago early on – we found out just how bad things were. I mean we were shedding about 750,000 jobs a month, which is almost unimaginable; and, certainly now, with 21 months of – of job growth, we realize we’ve been able to pull out of that.
So, the stimulus was a smart thing to do. It was a necessary thing to do, and it got us off the brink. At the same time, it put in place long-term investments – things that are going to grow our economy; help us better educate our kids, better educate our workforce. So, it was that combination of short term and long term that we thought was so important, and we were making calculations based on the best information we had at the time.
MR. MARTIN: I’ve talked to a lot of different people across various departments when – when we talk about domestic issues in this country, and one of the most consistent things I hear is, “We’ve done a lot of great things that people just don’t know.”
MS. BARNES: Um-hum.
MR. MARTIN: And I sit there, and I’m going, “Well, whose fault is that folks don’t know?” I mean – so, it – and I – when I hear that, it’s – it’s sort of like, “Seriously?” Even the President said it to Jon Stewart after the 2010 election, and I’m going, “Okay. That doesn’t really bode well to say, ‘We’ve done great things, but nobody knows about it.’”
MS. BARNES: Well, let me put that in some context. We – as I said, we walked in [with] 750,000 being lost every, single month; obviously, a housing crisis that continues to this day; wanting to turn around education; wanting to deal with the financial services industry, that helped put us in the crisis that we were in. We literally were moving from one crisis to another.
We passed the stimulus bill within the first, two months of being in the Administration. Many people said to me that stimulus bill included about a decade’s worth of anti-poverty work. Obviously now, the poverty numbers are still devastating; we’re still working on that, but we were able to accomplish a lot. We then moved on to save the auto industry. We’ve – we did that. Now many in the auto industry are hiring people back. They’re producing a product that’s a product for the future and that will allow America to compete globally. We then moved on, and we continued to get a healthcare bill passed – something people had been working on literally for decades. I worked for Ted Kennedy for eight years. He spent his life trying to get a healthcare bill passed. This president was able to sign one.
So, we were moving at a clip of trying to accomplish things that: a) hadn’t been accomplished over 30, 40 years of democr- — of Democrats and others in power, and also trying to save the country from economic ruin. That doesn’t necessarily give you a lot of time to focus on PR – when you’re trying to make sure that you’re trying – you’re creating jobs, you’re saving jobs, you’re trying to pull the economy out of a slump, and you’re trying to pass one of the biggest education reform bills since the G.I. Bill. We had a lot on our plates.
MR. MARTIN: Well, what did you want to get accomplished that – that did not get accomplished?
MS. BARNES: Well, there’re several different things. I mean we obviously have been working extremely hard on the issue of immigration. The President wanted to pass a comprehemp- [sic] — ho- — comprehensive immigration bill. We’ve been able to do some things administratively. He fought hard to pass the Dream Act. Those things haven’t happened yet, but we remain committed to getting those things done, so he’s going to continue to push on that.
You know, just earlier today – this week, I was able to participate in an announcement around early learning. That’s something he’s been striving for, pushing for since he walked in the front door, knowing that if we better educate our two- and three-year-olds and four-year-olds, they can – they’re ready to go to kindergarten. They’re better ready for k through 12. They’re then better prepared for college. Something we’ve been working on for a long time. We’re just able to get initial investments in place there. We also are – continue to work on implementation around healthcare. So, many of the things that we were able to get off the blocks and out of the starting blocks and get implemented we’re still fighting hard for. Some things that the President remains committed to, we haven’t been able to accomplish yet, but he hasn’t given up.
MR. MARTIN: You’re one of the highest-ranking women, highest-ranking African-Americans. Mona Sutphen was deputy chief of staff. She stepped out after 2010. The concern of another Black voice not being at the table in terms of a se- — a senior advisor to the President –
MS. BARNES: Um-hum.
MR. MARTIN: — not being there. Speak to that in terms of that concern, because [the] bottom line is whether or not you have a president who’s African-American, you still want to have diverse voices in other aspects of his administration.
MS. BARNES: Absolutely, and that’s something the President understands and knows about better than any person who has occupied the Oval Office. He wants that kind of diversity – that diversity of background and experience and racial and ethnic, sexual orientation of all kinds, because it makes the debate more vibrant. It brings different perspectives to the table and ultimately makes the policy better.
Even though Mona has left, even though I’ll be leaving at the end of the year, it doesn’t mean that we’ve walked away from the Administration. You know, one of the things I told the President when I told him that I planned to leave was that I also plan to work and to fight hard to make sure that he’s reelected. The colleagues that I’ve served with for the past three years remain close friends and colleagues, and I continue – will continue to talk to them and to work with them as they need any of my advice to make sure the next domestic policy advisor is – is well in place and able to serve the President well.
And also, I know that the President will continue to look for that kind of diversity, because it’s something that he believes in, and it’s something that he knows contrib- — contributes, because this – we serve the American people; and, therefore, the White House and the White House staff need to look like America.
MR. MARTIN: All right. Well, Melody, we certainly appreciate it. Thanks a bunch, and good luck with rest and playing golf.