Oct 21, 2020
Barack Obama Campaign Roundtable Event for Joe Biden & Kamala Harris Transcript October 21
Former President Barack Obama held a roundtable campaign event for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in Philadelphia on October 21. Read the transcript of the event with Obama’s remarks here.
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Barack Obama: (00:01)
… or the ’40s or the ’30s, because if you talk to folks who did, they ain’t going to say nothing changed. The reason things changed was because folks voted. That’s how the Voting Rights Act got passed. That’s how the Civil Rights Act got passed up and down the line. And that’s going to continue to be how we bring about changes. So now I have to say, while I’m working out, I’m still thinking someday maybe I’ll look like The Rock. Maybe if I shave my head. All right, what else we got?
Speaker 1: (00:40)
Senator Street, you have a question?
Senator Street: (00:42)
Well, I’m supposed to provide the overview, but Mr. President, when we were here, we heard from business people like Daryl Thomas who’s here in the audience and others, who explained that as small, first a lot of barbers and beauty salons did not get access to the PPP dollars. Now I’m in the State Senate, we’re in my district. It’s one of the poorest districts in the state, and I chaired a bank and insurance committee, and we know there’s been a history of red lining and those banks don’t have the best track record with doing business with our community. That was one of the concerns we heard. Other concerns we heard about the fact that there’s not a lot that the federal government’s doing about gun violence. Quite frankly, there’s not a lot Pennsylvania state government’s doing about it either. And people were concerned about that.
Senator Street: (01:24)
They’re saying that it’s not so much older brothers that are having trouble getting them engaged to vote, but it’s younger brothers who haven’t had the life experience that you or I or the Congressman have had in terms of living life, to see little things. Those are the people who are trying to be concerned because their life is short. And if you’re 18, you were 14, you were just starting high school when this guy got in there, so they’re not seeing the change. And believe it or not, for some of them, 12 years ago, they were six when you got elected. And while that doesn’t seem like a long time ago to us, to these younger people, it does. So that was part of the conversation we were wrestling with. And I’m going to introduce now my Imam. I’m the first Muslim senator in the state. My Imam, Imam [Abdroos Abdul Rahed Zahir 00:02:13] is here. And he’s a younger guy. I think he had a question for you specifically talking about a little bit of what’s going on.
Imam Zahir: (02:22)
Thank you, Senator Street, and thank you President, my forever president, President Obama. Pleased to be here. Yes, Imam [Adreees Abdul Zahir 00:02:33], resident Imam of National Law, the Center for Human Excellence. I’m also an IT management professional in the area. It’s often said that the difference between a good and great black voter turnout is a question of black male engagement, as we just discussed. So what do we think is the best way to engage the black male vote, specifically in a city like Philadelphia, which has one of the nation’s largest black Muslim populations?
Barack Obama: (03:13)
Well, look, first of all, a couple of things I got to say. For those of you who were not aware, my first political office was State Senator, so I’m always a little biased towards state senators, because it’s a great experience, especially in a big state like Pennsylvania or Illinois, because it allows you to meet people from all different kinds of the state and form coalitions. And ultimately that’s how you end up mobilizing the power you need to bring about real change. And it’s part of the reason why I’m confident that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are going to be able to deliver on some of their promises because they know how to make coalitions.
Barack Obama: (03:58)
And I think it’s important for us, anyone in the African-American community, to recognize that although our problems are more acute than many other communities, there are people of all races, all faiths in regions throughout this state and across the country that are also hurting. And those are potential allies and partners, if we can get past the constant division that is fed, attempting to set ourselves apart. And that’s been a long history in America, by the way, which is you try to distract working people from coming together to work together by highlighting racial differences or religious differences so that the people who got what they got can keep what they got. Now in terms of getting young people to vote, look, I’ve got two spectacular daughters, who are about as well informed and conscious and active as just about anybody, as you might imagine they would be because they’ve got Michelle Obama as a role model. But Michelle and I also joke, sometimes they’ll sit there and they’re really sophisticated and making all these important points, showing what they’ve been studying around history and they’ll quote Frederick Douglass and Fannie Lou Hamer, and you start thinking, “Wow.” And then they’ll do something that reminds you, “Oh, they’re only 20,” because they’re young. A lot of the young men you speak of, it’s not just that they’re African-American males. They’re young. And young people have a lot of distractions and it is rare, and I will confess that when I was 20 years old, I wasn’t all that woke, because I had other stuff that I was interested in. We won’t go into the details.
Barack Obama: (06:47)
So a lot of times I think our young men, they may try to give a ration now for why they’re not active and involved, but the truth is they’re not active and involved because they’re young and they’re distracted. And the way I think to break that mindset, if you look at every study of voting patterns, people vote when they see other people voting, when they see their peer group voting. So I think that the most important thing we can do in these closing 12, 13 days is for us all to model and advertise that it’s the cool thing and the right thing to do to vote, and to do it where they are.
Barack Obama: (07:47)
So I notice that my children, they don’t watch TV that has advertising, because they’re streaming everything. Either it’s on a phone. If they are watching TV, they’ve prerecorded it. That’s not a way to reach them, which means that organizations like yours that already have contacts, let’s take your mosque. For you to create something digitally that says, “Here’s all the people that are going to vote. We’re going to take a tally of who’s already voted. We’re going to have something, maybe a mixer or something, but you’ve got to have your voting sticker on.” Whatever it is that meets them where they are rather than expecting that they’re going to be responding to the same kinds of things that a 50-year-old man might respond to. I think that’s really important. And they have to see that their peers are voting. So trying to figure out how … I think Joe and Kamala have done a good job-
Barack Obama: (09:03)
Joe and Kamala have done a good job in listing some validators and influencers on social media that they listen to. But a lot of times, there are local folks that may not be as famous as-
Senator Street: (09:22)
You? Barack Obama?
Barack Obama: (09:25)
As me. Yeah. Right. I wasn’t going to say it, but like Busta Rhymes. Right? Although even Busta’s almost my age, I don’t know. You showing your age now. You’re talking about Busta Rhymes, man. Come on.
Senator Street: (09:40)
So Mr. President, I think we have one of those young validators whose Coach Isaiah Thomas is now a member of Philadelphia City Council was going to ask you a question.
Barack Obama: (09:49)
Isaiah Thomas: (09:50)
President. First of all, it’s an honor to be here with you, President Obama. And I’m pretty sure all the brothers who do the work on the ground in different aspects, in different ways in this city would agree with me that we appreciate you engaging us in this dialogue this morning, this afternoon at this point now. But again, I’m Council Member Isaiah Thomas. I’m a council member at large here in the city of Philadelphia. And for us here in Philadelphia, we have a lot of everyday problems that are impacting people. And those problems existed long before the pandemic. But because of the coronavirus and because of the pandemic, those problems have been magnified.
Isaiah Thomas: (10:21)
And so when we’re encouraging people to go vote and we’re pushing them to go to the polls, of course, there’s some level of resistance as it relates to how will this election impact my life? Can you help us and speak to us as it relates to tools that we can use so that we can let people know some of what you said earlier? The election will not all be won. I mean, sorry. All of our problems will not go away with one election, but at the same time, we have to recognize that this is a step in a direction of progress and change. So what would you say to a lot of us that’s on the ground that sees and hears and gets this resistance on a consistent basis because of the pandemic and because of those problems that existed are now pretty much on steroids? Thank you, President Obama. Again, we appreciate you being here.
Barack Obama: (11:03)
Well, first of all, how old are you, man?
Isaiah Thomas: (11:08)
I’m 36 now.
Barack Obama: (11:09)
You’re 36. You seem like a extraordinary young man. You may not be old enough to know that Bulls fans generally don’t like Isaiah Thomas. So I want you to watch the Last Dance in case you missed it. It’s on ESPN.
Isaiah Thomas: (11:37)
I did, I did. I mean, they got them on the East coast.
Barack Obama: (11:42)
Listen, first of all, I want to congratulate you because seeing young talent, right, I think is what always gives me hope. You’re going to know your communities better than I do. One thing I would do is to, as much as possible, focus on concrete issues that will be affected, not just by the presidency, but also down ballot. Now, let me take a couple of examples. The senator here was mentioning that the emergency federal stimulus package didn’t reach a lot of Black businesses. That is something that we’re almost certainly going to have to revisit. It doesn’t, right now, look like it may get done before the election. And who knows what may happen right after the election? But the economy is still in dire straits, and small businesses are falling left and right. When you look at how that money was distributed, there weren’t a lot of people who look like small business people in this community that were reached by it.
Barack Obama: (13:05)
So that’s something concrete and specific that I feel confident you can promise, which is if Joe Biden is elected and Kamala Harris are elected, the next round of emergency spending by the federal government to help support small businesses is going to be structured so that it’s more representative and every community benefits, not just some. And it’s going to be small businesses and not just big corporations. I think it’s also important to remind young people, though, that it’s not just the president and the vice president that are on the ticket. So here in Pennsylvania, flipping the state legislature could then start dealing with issues like gun safety.
Isaiah Thomas: (14:01)
Barack Obama: (14:01)
You could then start looking at reforms around how the criminal justice system operates in this state, school funding, how we think about diversion programs for young people. Right? There are a whole host of issues that are going to be determined in this election, not just the presidential and the vice presidential race. And I think it’s really important sometimes when we’re talking to young people to listen to them, what is it that they’re concerned about?
Barack Obama: (14:42)
One of the things I learned when I first went to Chicago, I’m in the south side, I’m ready to set the world on fire and go out there and organize. And I had been hired by a group of churches who were dealing with many of the community problems that still face an air like this. And I was 10 years younger than you, I was 25. And the guy who had hired me, he said, “I want you to just spend the first month, I’d want you to just go around talking to people and listening to them to find out what it is that they care about. Because a lot of times, we go around, instead of listening, we just want to tell people what they should care about. But we don’t take the time to find out what do you care about?”
Barack Obama: (15:29)
And I think, Councilman, in these last 12 days, you probably have a sense of some of the things they care about. But if I’m engaging a young person, the first thing I ask him is, “Well, what’s an issue that’s really important to you?” And as soon as they say anything, I guarantee you I can find something about that issue that’s going to be impacted by this election. So then I can turn it around on them and I can say, “Oh, well, if you really care about this, let me be very specific about how this is impacted by what’s happening in the state legislature, what’s happening at the federal government, what’s happening in terms of who the district attorney is or the state’s attorney is, what’s happening in terms of how budgets work.”
Barack Obama: (16:15)
Because ultimately, one of the biggest tricks that’s perpetrated on the American people is this idea that the government is separate from you. The government’s us. Of, by, and for the people. It wasn’t always for all of us, but the way it’s designed, it works based on who’s at the table. And if you do not vote, you are not at the table. And then, yes, then stuff is done to you. If you’re at the table, then you’re part of the solution. And I really want to emphasize to young people as much as possible in ’08, when I was elected, we had the highest African-American turnout in history, but it was still only about 60%. Yeah. When people say voting doesn’t make a difference, we’ve never tried what it would look like if it was 80% voting or 90% voting. During midterm elections, we get 30% of people voting, and probably 15% of young people voting. Well, you don’t know if it’s going to work if you don’t try it. So with young people, what I would say to them is look, give this a shot.
Barack Obama: (18:03)
Give this a shot. Because one thing I can say for certain is that, after having been in office for eight years, the country was better than when I came into office. And I can show that by any measure. So yeah, voting worked. It didn’t make everything perfect, but we solved a whole lot of problems. And the same is going to be true here locally in Philadelphia. We can make things better, and better is good. And I always used to tell my staff, “Nothing wrong with better.” All right?
Speaker 2: (18:44)
Thank you, Mr. President. I appreciate you.
Barack Obama: (18:45)
How am I doing on time here? Because I know, at some point, they’re going to yank me, because that’s-
Speaker 2: (18:51)
I think they’re telling me you got one more question.
Speaker 3: (18:53)
Can we get Malcolm Kenyatta? He’s one of them young bulls.
Barack Obama: (18:57)
I’ll take two.
Speaker 2: (18:58)
All right, they got two.
Speaker 3: (19:00)
Get Malcolm [inaudible 00:01:02], he’s one of them young bulls. He’s a state legislator. Young bull. [inaudible 00:01:06].
Barack Obama: (19:06)
And let me just say, if you don’t think things have changed, having a brother in the state legislature with that haircut. That’s a change. It looks sharp, man. But I’m just saying, you didn’t see that 20 years ago.
Speaker 3: (19:26)
[I 00:19:26] my hairstylist thanks you, and she’ll cut this video off and put it in half.
Barack Obama: (19:30)
That’s good, man. Give him a little props.
Malcolm Kenyatta: (19:33)
But again, my name is State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, and obviously, thank you for everything you’ve done and continue to do. When you ran for office, your slogan, hope and change. The last couple of years have been a lot of sadness and destruction. What still gives you hope?
Barack Obama: (20:01)
When I burst onto the national scene, it was after I had won the nomination to be the US Senator from Illinois, and I was invited to be the keynote at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. And I talked about hope and the audacity of hope in that. And I made this point about hope, which was, hope is not blind optimism. Hope is not ignoring problems. Hope is believing, in the face of difficulty, that we can overcome and get a better world. Hope is looking squarely at our challenges and our shortcomings and saying, “Despite that, I think through effort and will and community, we can make things better.”
Barack Obama: (21:07)
And so, I’ve never lost hope over these last four years. I’ve been mad, I’ve been frustrated, but I haven’t lost hope. And the reason is, is because I never expected progress to move directly in a straight line. If you look at the history of this country, you make progress and then there’s some backpedaling and backlash. And you consolidate some victories and then there’s some slippage and then you get a renewed surge of energy and then you make some more progress, and then there’s this little bit of back stepping and then you push again. And I think what we’ve seen over the last four years was a… With my election, I think we had probably gotten over optimistic about how much change had happened in the country, but that change was real. There was some pushback and that was real too. But when we started seeing all these young people from across the country demonstrating this summer, it reminded you they internalize that sense of optimism and change and possibility.
Barack Obama: (22:42)
So what gives me optimism is when I see them, I say, “Okay, here we are, back to make another push.” People like you, people like the Councilman, you guys are out there and you’re going to push it to the next phase. And then you’re not going to get 100% of what we need. And there’ll be some disappointments and areas where you fall short and then it’ll go back a little bit and then you push forward again. But the benefits of age is realizing that, in any endeavor, there are going to be setbacks, there are going to be times where you fall short, there are going to be people who are opposed to trying to do the right thing. And the test of our strength as a people is our ability to push through that on through to the next stage. And I have never given up that sense of, we are resilient and strong enough to push through what we’ve seen in these last four years.
Barack Obama: (23:58)
Now, the question is, making sure that we understand we can’t afford another four years of this. Because what happens is you do get to a point where you go so far backwards, that it becomes really hard then to dig yourself out of that hole. And I’m so confident in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris surrounding themselves with people who are serious, who know what they’re doing, who are representative of all people, not just some people, and us being able to then dig ourselves out of this hole. And we’re in a deep one. You talk about, let’s say, the pandemic. The pandemic would have been tough for any president. We haven’t seen something like this for 100 years. But the degree of incompetence and misinformation, the number of people who might not have died had we just done the basics, the degree to which it has impacted low income communities so disproportionately, that’s something that I’m not just confident that it can be fixed, there’s proof. Canada, right across the border.
Barack Obama: (25:33)
You’ve got 39% fewer deaths, almost 40%. We have examples. Knowing Joe as well as I do, knowing Kamala as well as I do, knowing the people that are advising them, I know we will be able to deal with this pandemic more effectively. It doesn’t mean that it’s all going to be solved tomorrow. We’re still going to have some struggles, but I know we can do better. And that’s what gives me confidence. That’s what gives me hope. But we’re going to have to vote in order for that to happen. All right, last question.
Speaker 3: (26:23)
Yes. Thank you, Mr. President. Now, I’m supposed to introduce you and tell him [crosstalk 00:08:26].
Barack Obama: (26:27)
No, go ahead. He can introduce himself.
Speaker 3: (26:29)
He works with your wife.
Barack Obama: (26:31)
He doesn’t need a hype man. DJ Khaled here. What’s your name, man?
Tamir Harper: (26:38)
Mr. President, my name’s Tamir Harper, and I will say I’m probably the youngest person in his room at 20 years old. I’m from Southwest Philly, and my question is kind of two parts, but all in one is, how would you tell an educator, as I want to be a future black male educator, how would you tell an educator to have a curriculum around voting and importance of voting, specifically, during this election with only just about a week and a half left, but also, how-
Tamir Harper: (27:03)
… with only just about a week and a half left, but also how would you get young people that have many different intersectionalities at the table and involved in elections?
Barack Obama: (27:12)
Well, first of all, did the Senator say you worked with Michelle?
Tamir Harper: (27:20)
I was with First Lady Michelle Obama during college signing day.
Barack Obama: (27:23)
Fantastic. All right.
Barack Obama: (27:28)
Look, we’re going to have a big task ahead of us in providing a better education curriculum on citizenship, and we could have a long conversation about part of the problem in our schools. The degree to which we teach kids from these worksheets and stuff that has no reference to the lives around them, instead of teaching them based on their experience and what is right in front of them. They’re reading about stuff that has nothing to do with what they’re seeing, words that have no correspondence to their lived experience. So, that’s a longer conversation.
Barack Obama: (28:39)
It’s never too early to start with young people and explaining to them what I just said earlier, which is the government is you, that in the same way that when you go out with your friends and you got to make a decision about what pizza you’re going to get, and is it going to be cheese or pepperoni? Or that you all decide, if there’re 10 of you or five of you, you go, “We’ll take a vote because we can only afford one pizza.” Well, you guys are exercising self-government.
Barack Obama: (29:22)
Here’s the history of what’s happened, which is that it used to be only a few people got to make the decisions for everybody. Because of people worked hard and they struggled and they voted and they fought for the right to vote, more and more people got a seat at the table and more and more people were able to have some say. We’ve still got more work to do. That’s something that a seven year old, an eight year old, a 10 year old can understand. Part of the job, I think, for an educational curriculum is to give them actual experiences voting.
Barack Obama: (30:00)
It’s interesting. Studies show that people are more likely to vote if they have participated in something like that when they were younger. So finding excuses to say, “Hey, what kind of posters do we want up in the rooms? Here’s some options. Let’s all vote. Here are three books that I want us to read this semester. Which one do you all want to read first?” Giving kids a sense that they have a voice, that peaks their interest.
Barack Obama: (30:46)
We teach kids the opposite, which is, “Just do what I told you to do. Shut up. I don’t have to explain why. That’s how we’re going to do it.” Well, if that’s our message, then that carries over to when they’re adults, and they start thinking, “Well, I have no say over this. I have no power over this.” I think as much as what the curriculum is, creating models to give young people experiences. It doesn’t have to be student council or something, because I wasn’t a member of student council. I had those distractions I was talking about. Although I’m very proud of young people who are part of student councils. But creating opportunities for young people to collectively make decisions and to see that the decisions they make then create results and have consequences, that’s, I think more than anything, what we want to teach people.
Barack Obama: (31:53)
So much of our world is designed to teach people to just consume and watch and eat and just lay back instead of teaching them to produce and make and create. We do that across the board. That’s why when I see schools that eliminate art programming or music programs, that’s a terrible thing. Because one of the things about programs like that is they spur people to think, “I don’t just have to listen to music, I can make music. I don’t have to just go to a museum, and that’s art.” No, art is me drawing something.
Barack Obama: (32:39)
The same is true when it comes to civic involvement. It’s like show them that they can do it, and give them examples of it. That requires us to have faith in our young people. You know what? I think so often, particularly in communities where we’re hurting, that we want to protect them, but then what that means is we make them afraid of everything. What we want to do is just say, “No, no, no, the world is there for you to shape,” and give them opportunities, even in small ways, to do that. When that happens, you’ll be surprised. They will rise to the challenge. All right? Well, listen, I appreciate all you guys. I got to get out of here. I got to go do a rally.