The Man Who Would Be Leader

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The Man Who Would Be Leader

Michael: Let me follow up with this: I think most people these days don’t believe trickle-down economics anymore, that tax bill of Trump’s wasn’t popular; if you look at what just happened in the U.K. with Liz Truss and the disaster that she was trying to do with those tax cuts for the rich, had to go back from that. I don’t think people buy that anymore, but I think people still don’t know what you guys are selling. There’s something that you are not communicating. What do you think it is?

Hakeem: Well, I think overall we’re going have to do a better job moving forward of recognizing that there’s a distinction between governing and messaging, though I think it is very clear that we govern in a way that has produced very positive economic benefits for the American people, and that’s been pretty consistent. You can go all the way back to FDR and the New Deal through some of the work of Truman and JFK, certainly the great society work that was done and led by LBJ through the work of President Clinton, where you had a booming ,economy and 20 million plus jobs to President Barack Obama, 14 plus million private sector jobs rescuing us from the Great Recession and all the way through to the work that’s been done through the leadership of President Biden. Consistently, we’ve governed in a way that has yielded incredibly positive economic results for everyday Americans. That’s factually indisputable. But you govern in fine print, you message, you persuade, you communicate in headlines. What the Republicans have managed to do is just to lean into messaging and communicating because they’re not that interested in my own governmental experience with governing. So while we are getting big things done, governmentally, to support the economic wellbeing of the American people, create opportunity and prosperity in every single ZIP code, I think we’re going to have to do a better job of messaging to the American people, what we’ve done, why it’s been beneficial for them, and what our continued vision is for a future that is filled with lower costs and better paying jobs and robust economic opportunity.

Felicia: Congressman, why is that difficult? You’re out there talking to voters every day of the week. Why is it hard to explain that or communicate that?

Hakeem: It’s a great question, and I know it’s a source of significant frustration for a lot of folks. I do think that in some ways, as I’ve often said and when many of us who’ve been working on communication over the years, and not as a criticism, but as an observation, Republicans talk in headlines; Democrats talk in fine print. We naturally talk in fine print because we care about public policy, care about governing, care about getting it right. In order to govern in an effective, efficient, and equitable way, you’ve got to master the fine print. But again, I think what we just have to do with some intentionality is make sure we separate the two, continue to get big things done and master the fine print. But as we are engaging in the battle within the public square around messaging and communication, make sure that we use persuasive means of communicating, which is going to require leaning into to headlines. I do think we’ve begun to do a better job of it to some degree. We started out with what was often referred to as the $3.5 [trillion] reconciliation package. That’s now the Inflation Reduction Act.

Felicia: That’s pretty appealing, isn’t it? Pretty sexy.

Hakeem: That’s a disaster, right? That’s a disaster. From a messaging standpoint, it may accurately capture what was originally being contemplated, but—

Felicia: The price tag in the process, you mean that’s not enough to sell the economic vision?

Hakeem: Exactly. That’s a good way of saying that. I’m going to borrow that. The price tag in the process, and that’s how we decide to label a bill. Again, we’ve made improvements. The Inflation Reduction Act is a much better headline. It actually sells itself. We’ve got to do a good job of making sure we continue to lean on simplicity and repetition to break through.

Michael: It’ll help if it reduces inflation, too.

Hakeem: It will help if it reduces inflation. But it is going to lower energy costs; it is going to lower healthcare costs; it is going to lower the high price of life saving prescription drugs for millions of Americans. We are dealing with an inflationary moment that is challenging. We actually have a plan to try to do something about it. It’s not clear to me that some of my friends on the other side of the aisle have a plan, though they spend a lot of time talking about it.

Felicia: You did just mention, Congressman, a lot of the legislation that this Congress has passed. There are four historic bills, three of which are about 10-year investments in our infrastructure, in fighting climate change by decarbonizing the economy, in building strong supply chains everything from semiconductors to science, research and development. That is a lot, and it is going to, if it’s implemented well bear fruit, but over a long time period. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the economic long view, especially because you personally will have some responsibility, maybe a lot of responsibility, for what all of this economic transformation looks like because you are of the generation where you are going to be in office, assuming you decided to stay in office, as all of this really comes to fruition. So talk about your economic vision for the long term and also how you think elected officials are responsible for stewarding this over the long term.

Hakeem: What has happened over the years, in my view, in terms of forces conspiring against the Great American middle class: you’ve had the globalization of the economy, the outsourcing of good paying American jobs, poorly negotiated trade deals, the dramatic decline in unionization, and the rise of automation. Any one of those would’ve been very problematic for the livelihood and economic wellbeing of everyday Americans and so unraveling all of that is incredibly important. I think our economic vision for the next few years, the next decade into the future, is to turn that around and really just lean in to the notion of making sure that everyone has the opportunity to be successful and prosper, where they’re comfortable living after working hard and I think the job creation that will come from some of the bills that have been passed into law: the Infrastructure Investment in Jobs Act, millions of good paying jobs; the Inflation Reduction Act is going to result in good paying jobs as we lean into building up a sustainable and resilient clean energy economy; and of course the CHIPS and Science Act is going to produce good paying jobs, and specifically is a policy decision to say we want to bring domestic manufacturing jobs back home to the United States of America. In the context of CHIPS, it relates to semiconductors, but that’s a policy decision that I think hopefully will continue to reflect a change in approach in the era of globalization.

Felicia: The reason I mentioned this long-term vision for all of these bills is because the rubber has yet to hit the road really, when it comes to implementation and somebody like you, of your generation, your leadership, there’s going to be a lot to do in five, eight, 10 years on these bills. So I was just wondering how you think about your role or the role of other political leaders as this stuff rolls out.

Hakeem: That’s a great question. Implementation is going to be important. We know executives come, executives go, and the executives in many ways will be responsible for making sure the implementation occurs, but there is a role to play for members of the legislature at the local and state level to the extent that dollars and resources and opportunities are flowing through state and local government as a result of the federal legislation and certainly an oversight role to play for those of us in Congress who want to see the legislation brought to life. That means that we’re going to have to monitor things closely, even with a friendly administration, but certainly if in fact we confront an administration down the road at some point that may be hostile to fair and equitable implementation, that’s going to require legislative oversight and engagement to make sure that the letter of the law is executed upon even more intensively.

Felicia: One of my last questions has to do with the way Congress organizes itself through caucuses. You’re very prominently associated with the Congressional Black Caucus. You’ve served as Caucus whip. How do you think that history is going to see this group of black leaders in this Congress? I especially think about how powerful the CBC was in arguing for student debt cancellation. You all pushed very hard. I think you maybe made the difference in that very important and very tough policy, so what’s it like to serve with this CBC?

Hakeem: When the Congressional Black Caucus was founded 51 years ago, 13 individuals, 12 men and one woman, Shirley Chisholm, and I’m honored to represent large parts of the district that the great Shirley Chisholm once represented, they had a vision for making sure that their power was used to both stand up for Black America, but all of America. I think as we’ve seen the CBC grow to, I believe, 56 members in the House of Representatives and two senators, Senator Booker and Senator Warnock, we still have that vision of making sure that the voices and needs of African Americans throughout the country are heard and acted upon in the Congress, but also through the broader lens of standing up for issues of social justice, racial justice, and economic justice for everybody. When you look at this Congress, the role that under the leadership of Whip Clyburn and Chairwoman Beatty in particular, the role that they played in getting some of these big things done, particularly the infrastructure investment in Jobs Act, with the CBC helped to break the log jam that had existed in the Congress between more moderate members, on the one hand, and more progressive members on the other, the CBC, because of its relationships and the fact that it has members who are both new Dems and progressives and blue dogs, it represents everyone, eventually became a leadership and unifying force for the good of all involved, certainly the people that we represent in our individual districts and that to me is going to be the legacy of the Congressional Black Caucus from this Congress, that it used its power to get big things done, as you pointed out, to work with the Biden administration to get to a place where you could have historic student loan debt relief. CBC also played a prominent role in encouraging the administration to do something about cannabis and marijuana reform using the president’s executive authority pardoning people who have been convicted at the federal level of simple marijuana possession.

Felicia: Which is a big racial justice issue, as well as a justice issue more broadly.

Hakeem: That’s right.

Felicia: Well, I do love the Shirley Chisholm reference. She always said that she was unbought and un bossed, which is kind of awesome. It’s really great for anybody, but obviously for Black leadership, for people of color leadership, really, we all should be un-bought and un-bossed.

Hakeem: That’s right.

Michael: I still have a “Chisholm for president” button somewhere.

Felicia: So congressman, our last question: how would you save our country?

Hakeem: We’ve got to do two things. One, we’ve got to respect the fact that the principle of self rule, government of the people by the people and for the people, requires free and fair elections. Period, full stop. There should be no debate about it, and to the extent that there are forces within this country who are trying to push us toward authoritarianism, we have to push back aggressively with the fierce urgency of now. That is not a principle that is subject to compromise. With respect to the corollary policy that I would join with, it has really been the subject of our discussion during this great podcast that the two of you host, which is how do we create an America where there really is economic opportunity available for everyone and that everyone can participate in the great American Dream, which goes hand in hand with a robust democracy. I think it was Brandeis who may have said that, “In America, you can have democracy, or you can have wealth concentrated in the hands of the very few, but you can’t have both.”

Michael: So true.

Felicia: Absolutely. I think that was Brandeis. We’ll take it.

Michael: Yeah, James Madison too, for that matter, a lot of people. But Congressman, thank you so much.

Hakeem: Thank you.

Felicia: Thank you very much, Congressman. It’s been a pleasure.

So Michael, two things really strike me about our conversation with Hakeem Jeffries. The first is his focus on the middle class, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about who really is middle class or what being middle class actually means in today’s economy. While I don’t think the congressman exactly answered that question, he was really clear on what it means for every American, for every person to have the kind of material safety and the kinds of opportunities that he had growing up. I think he thought of that then as middle class, and he wants that again. I think he thinks that’s possible. And then the second thing that was striking to me was the way in which race plays into his politics and his worldview. When the congressman talked about his political realization, he was a young man and he was watching television, and the Rodney King beating by the L.A. police in the early ’90s was playing, and that seemed like a seminal or a catalytic moment for him. It occurred to me that race in his politics and his policies are probably always there for the congressman, but they kind of felt just below the surface.

Michael: I was interested in what he was saying at the end when I was asking him about messaging and I think he had a good analysis of the differences between conservative messaging and liberal messaging. He didn’t say as much as I would’ve liked to have heard about how to fix that. It’s a hard question that everybody’s groping around for the answer to, and that’s what we’re trying, one of the big things we’re trying to answer on this show, it’s one of the reasons we’re doing this show. But pretty soon he’s going to be in charge of that so he’s needs to come up with something.

Felicia: Yes, well, I will look forward to a future in which Hakeem Jeffries is trying to define that question of strong, progressive headlines on the economy. And speaking of the future, Michael, this is a weekly podcast, and so you and I are going to be back next week with another episode on How to Save a Country.

Michael: We have kind of a special episode next week, don’t we?

Felicia: Yeah, we do. We’re talking to my colleague, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who’s one of the architects of the Green New Deal, and now runs climate policy for the Roosevelt Institute. There’s a lot she has to say about the backstory of the Green New Deal, and also a lot to say about the Inflation Reduction Act, what she likes and what she doesn’t like, so a lot for next week.

Michael: We’ll see you then.

Felicia: How To Save A Country is a production of PRX in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.

Michael: Our coordinating producer is Cara Shillenn. Our lead producer is Alli Rodgers. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzalez, and our mix engineer is Pedro Rafael Rosado.

Felicia: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound with other music provided by APM. How to Save a Country is made possible with support from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that is reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal wellbeing at

Michael: Support also comes from the Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society Initiative, working to foster the development of the new common sense about how the economy works and the aims it should serve. Learn more at

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