"Ever since I've been in Washington, I've seen things change dramatically," said Barnes. "Certainly right now, when Americans are facing so many burdens and challenges, we can still get things done. ... In the past 19 or 20 months, we've passed health care and [instituted education reforms]. Tobacco reform had been languishing for years, hate crimes has gone through, the list goes on and on. We've made progress on energy even though we haven't passed a bill."
When asked if Rahm Emanuel, the departing White House chief of staff can be truly replaced, Barnes explained how each official brings unique characteristics to the job.
Barnes zeroed in on education, telling the origin story of the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, which rewards innovative states and districts with education grants:
"It has been one of the most exciting periods for education I think in our country in more than a generation. We started out recognizing that we have been behind for much too long. Our K-12 system is ranked 48th in the world. We used that moment of crisis with the Recovery Act to take that $5 billion and use it to drive reform. ... But even before we put a dollar out the door, we have seen 34 states start to change their laws. ... Now we have 12 states and the District of Columbia that have these race to the top grants."
Barnes drew some laughs when she described her conversations about Obama's education discussions with officials in Asia. "In South Korea, they said biggest problem in education was the parents. 'They are so involved!' And we thought, 'Oh, to have that kind of problem.'"
"It's a high-class problem," Mitchell added.
Barnes sidestepped a question about what Mitchell called White House "silence" in the Democratic primary for mayor of Washington, D.C. Mitchell noted that the White House had been active in other Democratic primaries and had previously expressed support for Mayor Adrian Fenty's education reforms.
"To that I would say the District of Columbia is one of 12 states or districts that have received Race to the Top grants," Barnes said. "We absolutely support the kind of reforms taking place here. I'm not sitting in political office, I'm not making endorsements... but we do support this kind of reform." She went on to praise education reform all over the country, suggesting that all hope for reform does not depend on D.C. education crusader Michelle Rhee.
Barnes did reference the education documentary "Waiting for Superman," in which Rhee plays something of a heroine. "Many people here probably seen the movie 'Waiting for Superman,'" she said. "And we cannot wait for Superman. .. We cannot look for a single silver bullet or a single problem. At the same time, there have been problems with teachers' unions. Where those problems exist, we have to call them on that. ... At the same time, we recognize that [teachers' unions] can be great partners."
Barnes was enthusiastic about new health care reforms that went into place last week, on the six-month anniversary of the health care bill. "As people start to absorb it... they will absolutely appreciate [reform. We saw it after Medicare and civil rights laws. Change is hard. This is hard."