10 Questions for Rep. Chaka Fattah

Rep. Chaka Fattah (PA) is a panelist at the Town Hall meeting on Education at the 40th Annual Legislative Conference on Thursday Sept. 16, 2010 in Washington D.C.
(AP Photo/Earl Gibson III)
Rep. Chaka Fattah (PA) is a panelist at the Town Hall meeting on Education at the 40th Annual Legislative Conference on Thursday Sept. 16, 2010 in Washington D.C. (AP Photo/Earl Gibson III)AP

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President Obama unveiled a new initiative Thursday aimed at helping young men and boys of color succeed - it's called 'My Brother's Keeper.' Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA) attended the event with the President. David interviewed him Friday:

1) You were at the White House yesterday where the President unveiled his ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative to improve opportunities for young black and Hispanic boys. What does the program hope to achieve?

This initiative is focused on improving the life chances of all young men of color (African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans) and improving outcomes relative to education, employment, and health. The effort is really to rally the nation—from local and state communities to foundations and private businesses—to focus on the challenges and opportunities of these populations. It will require these partnerships and collaborations to be successful.

2) We’re well into the President’s second term. Do you sense the President is able to be more candid now he doesn’t have to run for re-election?

All second term Presidents have an opportunity to focus on challenges irrespective of the politics, because they don’t have to face the electorate. But obviously Presidential approval ratings and the public support for the President is still critically important in terms of an ability to implement their agenda.

3) What difference has having an African American President already made to the prospects of young black and Hispanic boys?

It has forever changed the aspirations of young men of color. It has changed how they can imagine their own careers and trajectory. And it’s changed, for the better, the country’s view that African Americans can be successful across all fields and in all levels of leadership—not just in sports or in show business.

4)Why the focus on boys specifically? What are the unique challenges they face over girls?

When you look across the board at critical life indicators—infant mortality, education, and incarceration rates—males of every stripe do more poorly than girls of every stripe. Young men are disproportionately at risk. Then when you look at the more challenged populations among boys, the statistics are even more out of filter. This is just a fact of life. These young men are in the most difficult of circumstances. They have—statistically —the most challenged path forward.

5) Valerie Jarrett, a key adviser to President Obama has said he will remain focused on helping young black and Hispanic boys after he leaves the Presidency. Isn’t that a partial admission of defeat that he hasn’t done enough as President?

I see the post-Presidential humanitarian work of President Carter and the work of President Clinton’s Global Initiative as continuations of their public service, not as any notion of failure in their presidencies. What the President said yesterday is that he sees tackling this issue as a moral challenge. He doesn’t see it as a sprint, but as a long-term effort. All of the major achievements in our country, in terms of education and wealth, are built one generation to the next. This is work that will have to be done over a number of generations.

6) How much of a factor is race in American politics generally?

Race, religion, geography, and other commonalities or differences play a role in politics. They always have and always will. But when the President won Iowa, New Hampshire, and Maine, that are by any statistic measure, some of the least diverse states in the nation, and when he lost Mississippi or Alabama, states with the highest concentrations of African Americans, one can look at the numbers and misread the reality.

Catholics were extremely excited when John F. Kennedy was elected President, Greeks were just as proud when Michael Dukakis ran, and African Americans obviously have a level of excitement for Barack Obama’s accomplishments. It’s a similar situation as any other group would have.

But race is a fact in American politics. African Americans have continually voted in their own self-interest, it’s the most reliable voting block for Democrats in the country. Now, the Republican party is seeing its ability to attract diverse voters of all races as increasingly necessary in order to maintain itself as a national party.

7) The President’s approval ratings are poor, what does he have to do to become popular again and will he succeed?

The President was popular enough to get re-elected, so popularity is relative. The President will become more popular as he receives more credit for his initiatives: successfully providing access to healthcare, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and growing our economy. When there is more focus on what he’s achieved, I think his approval rating will rise. Whether that will happen anytime soon given the 24-hour news cycle remains to be seen.

8) Ahead of the mid-terms many Democrats don’t want to be too closely associated with the President. Would you happily have him campaign with you?

I think that 90% of Democrats in the country would be happy to have him campaign with him.

I would love to have him in Philadelphia, but last election I garnered more votes than any Member of Congress has ever received, and I hope the President goes where Democrats need more support, in areas where the party would have to deploy other surrogates.

9) This week marked the fifth anniversary of the tea party. Are there things the Democrats can learn from the movement particularly in terms of energizing the base?

I thought the Democrats energized the base quite well in the Virginia governor’s race.

The inability to mobilize our base was a discussion that took place prior to the re-election of the President. People thought his base was demoralized, and questioned whether they would they come out again, the way they came out in 2008. But these voting groups –women, young people, and African Americans– came out at even higher percentages. So the prediction of passivity in the base before an election and the actual reading of results are two different things.

10) Comedian Seth Rogen caused quite a stir after appearing on Capitol Hill yesterday to talk about Alzheimer’s and expressed his frustration with politicians. What role do celebrities have to play in politics?

Part of their role is that they attract press attention to their cause. Seth Rogen was speaking to discuss a hugely important subject, one that was very personal to him and his family, and also happens to be one of my own priorities, so I welcome his advocacy. The day after he testified on Alzheimer’s in the Senate, my colleagues and I on the House CJS Appropriations Subcommittee held a major hearing on neuroscience, where there was bipartisan agreement to increase funding for brain science in order to cure diseases like Alzheimer’s and autism.