As President Barack Obama walked down the Congressional aisle after delivering his final State of the Union Address, Santa Barbara Congressmember Lois Capps reached out, shook his hand, and said, “Mr. President, you and I are leaving this place together. He said, ‘I know that.’” For Obama, it was his eighth State of the Union speech; for Capps, it would be her 18th and her last. “This was very emotional for me,” Capps said. “It was rather poignant.”
It became especially so, she said, as Obama spoke of the need to change the way politics is conducted in the United States and re-establishing “bonds of trust” in an atmosphere defined by hyper-partisanship. “That was the phrase Walter used — ‘bonds of trust,’” Capps said, speaking of her deceased husband, Walter Capps, whose Congressional seat she assumed in 1997 after he died of a sudden heart attack. “Man, that took my breath away to hear the President talk that way.”
Congress was bitterly divided along partisan lines, Capps said, when she first took office. “But it wasn’t half as partisan as it is now.” In his address, Obama appealed to the “voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love,” a phrase he borrowed from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to reduce the rancor and noise of American political discourse. When Americans learn to conduct politics in a less polarized fashion, anything, he said — a cure for cancer, an end to climate change, even campaign finance reform — is possible. To do otherwise, he contended, would be to “forsake a better future” and allow an even greater consolidation of great wealth and power.
Capps said Obama might have better served his agenda were he endowed with some of the “big, hearty, slap-you-on-the-back” personality traits of former president Bill Clinton, whose impeachment was taking place when she first took office. But the president, she added, “has been stymied by Congress in so many ways.” Even so, Capps added, “It’s amazing how much we actually got done. The economy is undoubtedly in much better shape — though not for everybody — and we passed the Affordable Care Act.” These were among the accomplishments Obama cited.
Capps had nothing but praise for Obama’s speech and the to-do list the president outlined, which included free community college education, immigration reform, the end of the Cuban trade embargo, closing the American prison at Guantanamo, an increased minimum wage, and a “more fair” distribution of economic wealth for those willing to work hard. “He really poured himself into that speech,” she said. “I got a lot of exercise there; I stood up every minute or so.”
Celebrated for winning the Nicest Member of Congress award more times than any other member, Capps lamented it’s grown far harder to find Republicans with whom she can reach across the aisle. “But I can’t stop trying,” she said. To that end, Capps said she is currently collaborating with Michigan Republican Fred Upton, chair of the Energy & Commerce Committee on which she sits, to strengthen safety regulations on oil transport pipelines in the wake of the Refugio spill.
Upton is stepping down from his post as chair at the end of the year, and his district, like Capps’s, experienced an environmentally traumatic pipeline spill. They also have a personal connection. “I know Fred,” Capps said. “I really like Fred. I know his wife.” As for attending her last State of the Union speech, Capps said it was more a time to “reflect” than “to be nostalgic.” She also stated, “It’s a little weird.”
Editor’s Note: This story was changed to reflect that Rep. Upton will end his chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce committee, not his term in Congress.