Velma Hart, the woman who famously spoke up for the beleaguered middle class in a town hall meeting with President Obama Monday, spoke with Reason this morning. A partial transcript of our conversation is below, not including the part where we were both stumped as to the German translation of "hot dogs and beans."
Hart makes clear that she remains a supporter of the president, saying, "It takes a long time [to turn the economy around], especially when you only have four years, and I want him to have eight, so he can truly advance the agenda he's thinking about."
She says she believes the president did answer her question about what he is doing for the middle class, but adds, "I don't know if he really answered the part about, 'Is this the new reality,' which was really the heart of my question."
Hart, an Army Reserve veteran who is now CFO at a veterans organization, does in fact have a credit card (I misinterpreted her joke on that point with the president). But as you can see, the air of prudence and probity she projected on TV easily withstood ten minutes of questioning:
Reason: What's happened in your own situation? Has there been a comedown for you personally since the recession started?
Velma Hart: My organization's ability to give increases has been adjusted. We have to be more conservative in business. So my earning power has been slightly affected. And the concern for me is that the cost of other things are going up. The health care increase this year was a double-digit adjustment in what you had to pay. The 401(k) plan situation is certainly something that's done a little dip. But I think the most painful thing for me is the loss of value in my home. It's had a significant loss in value. And you know, we all work for that American dream. And when it's your most expensive asset and it drops as significantly as ours has, it's a little disheartening.
Reason: Do you mind my asking when you bought the place?
Hart: No, we bought in 2001, somewhere in there, 2002. We've been in this house almost ten years. We bought at a very good time. It was a great buy at that time and it appreciated in value very quickly. And not that we wanted to borrow all the money out of it, but it sure was great to have something that added so much value to your net worth. That's certainly been affected.
We have an extended family, and various members of my family are being affected by this in job loss and other things. And we're having to pitch in and help. And I think that's something that gets lost in this – that when those around us that we love are compromised, we have to help them. And that takes away from what we have available for our own use. Does that make sense?
Yeah, definitely. You didn't borrow against your house, did you?
Hart: No, we didn't get to that point.
So you're still ahead of the game. The house is worth more than you paid for it, and I'm assuming you're above water on your mortgage, right?
Hart:No, I don't know that I can say with surety that the house is worth more than we paid for it.
Hart: Yeah, in Maryland.
Reason: I've got the same situation with a place I bought in Virginia, but like a golem I bought in the middle of 2006. According to Zillow, it's worth about 50 percent of what I paid for it.
Hart: That's about the situation we're in. It's bad. It breaks your heart. You think, "It must be wrong! Run the numbers again!"
Reason: In a way though, if you look at the way house prices have climbed since 1980, they've outpaced nearly every other thing in the economy. Maybe what we're talking about with the new reality is that for a good 15 years people have gotten accustomed to thinking of the house as a financial investment, and we all have to get used to the idea that the house is just the place you live in.
Hart: You might be right. I think we're at a milestone of reality checks for all of us, and that may be one of them. For me this may be one of them. Prior to this administration, we didn't hold people accountable and we didn't pay attention and we didn't ask the right questions of our officials and of the people sitting in positions, our elected leaders.
That's the turning point for me. I'm not going to stand on the sidelines and be silent. And when I have an opportunity I'll speak up. And this one was the greatest blessing of my life: To be in front of someone you admire, and to be able to ask something that's really near and dear to your heart, is a rare opportunity. It taught me that I'm gonna continue to ask tough questions, I'm going to be part of the political process, if for no other reason than for myself and those I love, for our preservation. We all need to be paying closer attention, and making sure we understand, so we don't, as you say, I guess, fall into the bubble and don't read the signs properly.
Reason: As far as the economic policies the president has enacted – and I'm gonna go ahead now and make the case against him: Unemployment went up substantially after his economic team took office. Deficits have hugely expanded. The debt has hugely expanded. And as you and I, I think, agree, we're all in a situation where everybody has to get used to running up less debt and living within their means. And yet the government is not setting that example. So how do you feel about what he's been doing economically?
Hart: Well, I get the logic of it, and I can appreciate the fact that right now his intention is to try to stimulate spending, to build consumer confidence and consumer credit – in a painfully opposite situation. You know, when you don't have job – as he said himself – your reality is that you don't have a job. You don't want to spend if you have a little bit of savings, because you don't know where your next job is coming from. I have a friend who's been out of work for almost two years now, and she's highly competent, highly qualified.
So I understand the logic of it. And maybe it's the right answer. And maybe ten years from now we'll look back and say that was the right thing to do. I don't know what's right thing or the wrong thing to do. I just want smart people around the table having a deep discussion about what's the right thing to do, and then doing that with conviction. I have confidence that this administration can and will continue to do that.
Reason: I like to think he fired Larry Summers because of you. I like to believe he thought, "You know, Ms. Hart is right. I need to readjust or something."
Hart: I don't think there was a connection. I don't believe that.
Reason: What do you think of the way the media – including people like Reason – have picked up on your comments? Many people have used this to say: Look, here's a classic Obama voter who doesn't seem to be content. Are you concerned with the way your comments have been used – maybe in ways you don't agree with?
Hart: Absolutely. But that's the price of seizing the moment. And that's what I like to think I did. I had been looking for the opportunity. I had been thinking about writing a letter to communicate with the man I helped to put in office and voted for. I wanted to talk to him about what's on my mind. And talk is cheap. I kept saying: I'ma write a letter, one day I'ma write a letter. And I was blessed to actually say it to him directly, and to get a direct response. That's unprecedented, and I think it will be with me forever.
Whether he's on the right course or not on the right course, I believe in the change that he wanted to advance. So there's a fight for that. It was radical change when he proposed it. It will be radical change when he tries to execute it. And I certainly understand the point of view that you have about government and personal responsibility, and I think that's very important as well. And that's why I'm willing to own some of the pain to get us though this difficult time.
I want to say a word about AmVets, my own organization: The economy's also having an impact on the military and veterans. We really need to get this problem under control, so we can make sure the people who are fighting for our freedoms aren't affected. Because they have been affected significantly.
Reason: Very nice talking with you. I appreciate your calling back. Hope you're enjoying your week of fame.
Hart: I was hoping for more like two days. I'm a finance geek. I'd rather be with a calculator at a desk.