Open Letter to President Obama: Meet with Civil Society Leaders
Dear President Obama:
The sentiments expressed in this letter may have more meaning more for you now that the results of the mid-term elections are clear. You have seen what can happen when a number of your supporters lose their enthusiasm and stay home or do not actively participate as volunteers.
In your first two years, you have developed a wide asymmetry between your association with Big Business executives and the leaders of national civic and labor groups whose members are in the tens of millions. You have met repeatedly at the White House and other locales with corporate officials, spoken to their gatherings and even traveled abroad with them to promote their exports.
Recently on your trip to India with a covey of business leaders, you vigorously touted their products, some by brand name (Boeing and Harley-Davidson’s expensive motorcycles). Your traveling companions could not have been more gratified as you legitimized their view that WTO trade rules were a net plus for employment in the United States as well as India. Imagine—the President as business agent.
Contrast this close relationship with profit-making firms, many subsidized by the taxpayers in various ways, and probed for health, safety or economic violations by regulatory agencies, with your refusal to openly and regularly address the large non-profit civic groups. Before your inauguration, I wrote requesting that you do what Jimmy Carter did just after his election when he addressed and interacted with nearly one thousand civic leaders at a Washington hotel. They addressed a broad array of issues: environment, food, labor, energy, consumer, equality for women, civil rights-civil liberties and other endeavors for a better society. It was a grand and productive occasion.
You know that the civic groups—often called the Independent Sector—employ many thousands of people around the country often on shoestring budgets with no profits in mind. They work for health, safety, economic and environmental well being, for living wages and access to justice, for peace and the rule of law in domestic and foreign policy. Yet you as President do not adequately attach your cachet in their favor and give them the visibility that you give commercial businesses. Strange! For profits and jobs, yes I’m coming says the President. For justice and jobs, no I’m not coming says the President.
It is time to associate yourself with civil society, name some with approbation as you have done with companies, express your support for the expansion of their budgets and activities, in short, identify with them.
Please note that when you invite the CEOs of Aetna and Pfizer numerous times to the White House and cut deals not exactly in the patients’ best interest, while you decline to invite old friends and mentors on these health insurance and health care subjects like Dr. Quentin Young in Chicago, people are perplexed and communicate their displeasure via their networks.
Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that on February 7, you “will cross Lafayette Park from the White House to the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, his longtime political nemesis…” What about walking next door and visiting your political friends at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO whose member unions represent millions of working Americans?
You can discuss with Richard Trumka, a former coal miner and the new president of the AFL-CIO, your campaign promises in 2008. Repeatedly you said to the American people that you supported the “card check” and a “federal minimum wage of $9.50 in 2011.” The 1968 minimum wage, adjusted for inflation would be about $10 today. (The federal minimum wage is now $7.25)
Moving up the minimum wage to nearly what it was back in 1968, in purchasing power, would increase consumer demand by over $200 billion a year. Isn’t that what this economy needs right now, not to mention the boon it would be to long deprived, underpaid workers and their families? After all, businesses of all sizes have received a variety of substantial tax breaks during this windfall period of a stagnant federal minimum wage. Isn’t it time for some equity for the people?
On a related note, over a year ago, Mr. Mike Kelleher, the man in charge of letters written to you, said he would get back to me about your policy on replying to letters that deal with substantive matters, whether under your signature or the signature of your assistants and department heads. I have not heard from Mr. Kelleher.
Let me give you an example. Months ago I wrote to inform you that several prominent environmental and energy groups, such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, were at their wit’s end trying to arrange a joint meeting with Secretary Steven Chu. He repeatedly declined to meet, though he has often met with nuclear energy business executives and has gone so far as to tout nuclear energy’s desirability in an op-ed. The environmental groups wanted a serious exchange with him on your Administration’s energy policies, including your request to Congress for very large loan guarantees by taxpayers for utilities that want to build more nuclear plants.
My letter asked you to intercede and urge Secretary Chu that it is only fair and constructive to hear what these groups have to say. There never was an answer from the White House or the Department of Energy. You know that for years many citizen advocates have worked hard to improve the federal government and they have rarely experienced such discourtesies of no replies.
Perhaps you do not care. But you should know that there are people who do. What is your response?