Rep. Emanuel Cleaver was supposed to be a warm-up act at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night, a little ambient sound before former President Bill Clinton was to take the stage of Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena.
But instead of warming up the convention audience, Cleaver set it on fire with a passionate, rocking, sometimes off-the-cuff, sermon-like defense of Barack Obama’s presidency and Democratic Party liberalism.
Cleaver, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and an ordained United Methodist pastor, let loose a speech that was one part Sunday-going-to-church, one part James Brown, one part Martin Luther King, Jr., and one part pure Cleaver. After all, this is the man who once described the Republican Party agenda as “a Satin sandwich.”
Deviating from his written remarks, Cleaver implored Obama to “Hope on” in the face of Republican charges the America’s capacity for hope is gone.
“Yes, Mr. President, hope on. Continue to hope, Mr. President,” he said to cheers. “No matter what, Mr. President, you continue to hope! As long as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sit on the throne of grace, hope on! Hope on! We are people of hope, Mr. President! Hope on! Hope on! When everything else is gone, hope on!”
“Hope fills the holes of my frustration in my heart,” he continued. “Hope inspires me to believe that any day now, we will catch up to the ideals put forth by our nation’s founding fathers. Hope is the motivation that empowers the unemployed, enabling them to get out of bed every single morning with unbounded enthusiasm as they look for work.”
Marching in place on the convention stage, Cleaver said “It is our hope that tells us our latter days will be greater than the former. It is our hope that tells us to march on!”
Cleaver was tapping into the optimism that black Americans have historically had through time – and these tough times. Though black unemployment that stubbornly outpaces the national average, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last November found that nearly half of black Americans remain optimistic and more enthusiastic about voting this year than in previous elections.
A February 2011 poll by The Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University found that 85 percent of blacks are optimistic about their future, with 65 percent indicating that they feel specifically secure about their financial situation.
But the nation’s economic struggles have worn on some of even the heartiest black Americans and provided Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his party with ample ammunition against Obama, even though the GOP and former President George W. Bush can take some credit for the current state of the U.S. economy.
Romney and the Republicans are prescribing a conservative fiscal and social solution for America’s woes. To that, Cleaver Wednesday said hogwash. He shamelessly uttered the L-word to the convention crowd: Liberal.
“Look, if being liberal and progressive means that I care for children and whether they go hungry, color me! Color me a Democrat!” he said, again venturing from his written text. “If being a Democrat means I’m concerned about our seniors in the sunset of their life, color me a Democrat! Color me liberal! After all, we are the ones who protected Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, who fought for fair wages and who ended ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. We are Democrats! And don’t you ever forget it!”
Cleaver also had choice words for the corrosive atmosphere in Washington, D.C., where Congress is so locked in political warfare that nothing gets done.
“Congress is unable to do the work of the American people because too many politicians believe that compromise means capitulation,” he said. “This must change, because just as bees cannot sting and make honey at the same time, members of Congress cannot simultaneously make passionate enemies and expect political progress.”
Cleaver said constituents in his Missouri congressional district “tell me they would like to look at their political leaders and see more warm hearts and fewer hot heads, more facts and fewer falsehoods – many of us want the same thing,” he said. “While I greatly respect my Republican colleagues and their ideas, I am proud to be a member of this great party.”