In an inarguably tough election year for Democrats, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes presented his report card on President Barack Obama to a handful of his 4th District constituents Tuesday evening. Himes gave the nascent president what amounted to an A-. He spoke both cautiously and glowingly of the man’s handiwork. But mostly glowingly.
“It’s been one heck of a rollercoaster as I reflect back,” Himes opened his 6:30 p.m. teleconference call, presented by Organizing for America, Obama’s grassroots political arm. “It’s a little hard to exaggerate how far we’ve come since January 2009. Things are still not the way we want them to be—unemployment, the Iraq War, energy policies—but very important things have been done.”
He talked about the economic-reform bill; the new health care law; the energy bill—all trademarks of perhaps the most energetic, ambitious president this country has ever seen.
“When I came into office with Obama, we were still losing hundreds of thousands of jobs. Now we are not in that world. Not close to it, although no one’s celebrating,” Himes told his listeners.
“The economy is growing again. Businessmen are speaking more optimistically. The [$890 billion] stimulus bill and other initiatives really helped turn things around. The stimulus [represented] the biggest federal commitment to public education. We’re moving forward on an energy bill. We are very proud of the health-care reform. It’s not perfect but reality is we took an historic step forward. The president has done some terrific things, lifting the stem-cell ban, reversing the travel ban on people with HIV.”
“It’s a more humane and just world,” said Himes.
First up: BP
A caller asked the congressman how Obama should have reacted differently to the ever-worsening BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “There’s a lot of anger toward Obama,” the caller said.
Himes said BP was slow to recognize the severity of the spill and the government didn’t hold BP’s “nose to the grindstone as soon as they should have. This dangerous type of activity requires a lot more oversight. We’ve got to learn from this.”
Himes said the “immense amount of anger” is in part over Obama’s seeming lack of emotion. “The president is an analytical man of much controlled emotions. It’s clear that people are hungry for a much more emotionally engaged [president]. But I’m not sure that would plug the well.”
I want my free score
“What can be done to make it more accessible for people to get their free credit score,” asked a caller.
“You can get your credit score, under law, once a year for free,” Himes replied.
“Why just once a year? It’s my information,” the caller shot back.
“I wish I could tell you there’s a way to get more than one free credit report. The credit card companies rely on a very complicated set of rules to confuse us. They change the due date to kick in late fees. They change their rates without telling you. A lot of that stuff is going away as a result of this [finance] reform,” said Himes.
Budget and spending cuts
Himes and four other freshman congressmen recently made news for sending a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi imploring Congress to adopt a budget resolution before opening up the taxpayers’ wallet for FY2011 expenditures. Budgeting before spending has been a congressional protocol since 1972, but this year the Democratic House leadership is considering spending without a blueprint.
“Bypassing the budgeting process and going straight to spending is a recipe for disaster,” Himes wrote. He’s suggesting a 1-percent spending cut.
Asked if his push for a budget and a teeny reduction in spending have anything to do with Republicans pointing accusatory fingers at Democrats, during the midterm election season, for the huge deficit [projected to reach $1.5 trillion this year] and national debt [at $30 billion].
“Politics are not 100 percent clear on this,” he responded. “There are lots of people in my district saying you have to spend more money on teachers and schools. And there are lots saying you have to spend less.”
He recalled the surplus President George Bush had inherited from President Bill Clinton, and then quickly turning it into the nation’s largest-at-the-time deficit. “The Republicans went on an eight-year spending binge like nothing we’ve ever seen. You’ve got to go back and look at where the huge deficits came from.”
Himes faces one of four Republican candidates in November. State Sen. Dan Debicella of Shelton received the endorsement at the Republican party’s convention, but three others are challenging him for a shot at Himes.
Himes denied that the anti-incumbent rage has influenced his publicly stated views on the economy. In December 2008, a month before being sworn into the House of Representatives for the first time, Himes held an economic forum in his district to gauge constituents’ reactions to the proposed $850 billion stimulus package. At the time, Himes said he was concerned that he’d have to vote on something that huge just hours after taking office. But he said while he had some reservations he felt overall the stimulus package was a must-have.
“Like so many people, I’m a believer in basic economic theory: when in a recession it makes sense for the government to stimulate the economy. Economists on the right and left without exception said the government needs to stimulate. It was absolutely the right thing to do.”
Asked how a 1-percent spending cut could make a difference, he said it’s more about symbolism.
“It’s a signal to Washington; it’s not a solution. What the world is looking for from the United States is an indication that we have the political will and a plan to restore some fiscal balance,” Himes said.