Bonnie Erbe Interviews Karen Kornbluh, 'Obama's Brain'

Bonnie Erbe gives a sneak preview of her talk with Karen Kornbluh, key adviser to Obama.

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By Bonnie Erbe, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Kornbluh this week for my PBS show, To the Contrary , which will air nationwide this weekend.

Here's a sneak preview of the interview. Kornbluh has been called "Obama's Brain" (as if he needed one) by major media outlets such as CNN.

She denies that she is, but she has been on his Senate staff as a senior adviser on legislative and domestic policy. She will join the administration, but she told me she is not sure in what capacity.

I asked her about whether Barack Obama, unlike George W. Bush and Karl Rove, needs a "brain."

Kornbluh: No, no. I mean, it's extremely flattering that someone would say that, but Senator Obama is bar none. I mean, what a brain. What an intelligent . . . we are so lucky as a country that this man was willing to run for president and is willing to serve as president. I mean, not only is he a fantastic speaker, not only is he the kind of politician and leader who understands where the country needs to go, not only can he keep his cool and make the right decision no matter what's coming at him and not let his ego get in the way. But I've never met anyone really who can think through an issue, who can see around corners the way he can. So that was a very flattering headline someone put on an article, but I am afraid I'm going to have to say no, I am not qualified to have that title.

Erbe: What will happen with women's issues during the Obama administration?

Kornbluh: As far as Barack Obama and women's issues, he has a really long history of being great on women's issues, and I don't know that people always appreciate that. They may think that he came to women's issues in the middle of the election or that he was responding to Hillary Clinton, and, in fact, back in the Illinois State Senate he was always focused on these issues. I've talked to women who are very active in Chicago, worked with him in Springfield, and they say he was their go-to guy. You know, he was the guy who passed VESSA, which was employment protection for women who had been victims of sexual assault. He was just great on a whole host of issues, whether it was family leave, whether it was EITC, earned income tax credit, whether it was children's healthcare, and then choice, obviously very strong on choice. So this goes way back. People felt that he was one of them. They could always go to him. He has a 100 percent rating from NARAL. These are issues he's really committed to. And then I've talked to him about, you know, what does it all mean. And I remember when he said, "When the other side, meaning people who are less tolerant, try to narrow the issue—that's when they can win. But when we expand the conversation to: 'Do we want our daughters to have the same opportunities as our sons?'—that's when we win." And I just got all teary-eyed, and I said, "You've got to go out and give a speech and say that." And he's given a couple of marvelous speeches where he's talked about that and what it means.

Erbe: How will the recession affect Obama's ability to make good on his promises for more government entitlements?

Kornbluh: Barack Obama, the president-elect, has had proposals for paid family and medical leave. Expanding family and medical leave so that you can take time off for other purposes, like an elderly parent, like a domestic partner. You had proposals for sick days, so right now half of the working population can't take a day off when they have a sick child, with pay, and so that was another proposal that was made: to have a right to talk to your employer, to have a dialogue about flexible work. A lot of companies have understood that in order to retain workers and to get the most out of workers they have to be able to work on a two-way street with flexibility. But a lot of employers who have low-wage workers, they haven't entered into those conversations, and they may feel they have all the leverage and they don't need to. But one of the things that Obama talked about is let's start having those conversations, a right to have a conversation about flexibility.

Now, how these things are going to play out, what the timing is going to be, what Congress is going to be able to do, everything has changed. You know, we're in the middle of this huge economic situation that has to be dealt with, but he has a real commitment to not only women's economic issues, but I would articulate a third thing, which is families. Like a real family-values agenda, not a pretend family-values agenda. But a family-values agenda that says, "We're going to really take care of our kids and our elderly parents and the people who take care of them. And we're not going to punish them for not fitting into some mold that you fit into in the 1950s." And that's amazing. The statistic that wakes me up at night is that a third of kids today are being raised by single mothers and 60 percent of poor kids are being raised by single mothers, so when I think about all of the resources that I have at my disposal and how hard it is to juggle and I think about a low-income mother trying to raise a child who can't take a sick day without being fired—you know these are the really, really, really important issues, and I think he has a real commitment to address them.

Erbe: Is a postpartisan Washington a possibility or just a dream?

Kornbluh: I can just speak to how much goodwill he's been able to build with people on both sides of the aisle. When he went on a foreign trip with Senator Lugar, who is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who is a Republican, they built a real bond. When he came back and gave a speech about how seriously we need to take energy policy from a national security perspective, Senator Lugar's office called and said, "How can we work together?" When he and Senator Coburn, who couldn't be more different than he is, decided they didn't want government funding to go to waste and there were these new technologies, so they were going to post online where all contracts were going so that anybody could look it up . . . you know, he found common ground. And that kind of common ground I think is really underestimated in terms of how much goodwill it can build. So, are people going to disagree? Absolutely. One of the things I worked on this past summer was I wrote the Democratic platform. And it was the most wonderful experience. I just had a great time. And one of the things I found is that you can work with people, and this was just working with Democrats, but it was working with people who had really different views within the Democratic Party. And you really found that if you could get to the back of their argument, to the bottom of their argument, they didn't need that exact word or that exact sentence necessarily, but if you could get to the spirit of it, you could often find--I don't want to be Pollyannaish about it--but you could often find common ground. And where you couldn't and where you could explain it to people and where you could say, "Look, you're not going to get what you want here, but on this other thing we are going to be incredibly sensitive and give, you know, absolutely what you want," even if it's not exactly what we would have necessarily wanted to put in there anyway, but we are treating you with respect and inclusion, and that's a high priority for us. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of sophistication. It takes a view to the long term. He's absolutely capable of that.

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