An Open Letter to President Obama
from Ron Sider
Congratulations. You ran a brilliant campaign. Many Americans agreed with your call for change. And you have moved decisively to develop a strong gifted team for the next four years. Our prayers are with you.
You certainly need prayer. You do not need me to tell you that you have a nearly impossible task. Globally, you must oversee two wars in a world where US prestige is at an all-time low. A global environmental crisis has cried out for urgent, costly attention for more than a decade. You need to fix a domestic health care system with 47 million Americans uninsured and costs escalating at an unsustainable pace. There is growing poverty and a dangerously widening gap between the rich and poor in the richest nation in history. All that, plus the most severe global economic collapse since the great depression. Yes, we can—and must—pray for you.
Given this cauldron of problems, we don't ask for miracles. We know you cannot meet all the unrealistic expectations that many have.
But we do think you can bring significant change even in this horrendous situation. Recent failures have helped people understand that the status quo is not working. You can use your outstanding oratorical skills to build a majority committed to wise, bold policy improvements. Even people like myself, too old to be naive and utopian, nonetheless have high expectations. And we intend to hold you accountable to your promises.
Let's start with poor Americans. About 36 million Americans already fall below the poverty line. The respected Center for Budget and Policy Priorities recently estimated that the recession may push another six to eight million Americans into poverty. During the campaign, you publicly embraced the goal of cutting domestic poverty in half in ten years. It is also true that neither you nor Senator McCain said a word about poverty or the poor in 270 minutes of Presidential debates. It was safer, politically, to talk about the middle class.
But you know as a community organizer in South Chicago that poverty devastates the lives of tens of millions of Americans. You know as a Christian that God measures societies by what they do to the people at the bottom. So yes, work hard to get the economy back on track. But make sure that you measure every proposal by what it does to the poorest. Please, right from the beginning, include substantial programs that empower the poorest 20 percent and 40 percent. And, early in the first year, spell out concretely how you plan to cut poverty in half in ten years.
Morally, it is simply unacceptable for the richest nation in history to have 47 million uninsured people with no guarantee of adequate health care. We cannot wait another four years for dramatic changes to correct that. It would be immoral to solve Wall Street's problems by postponing health care coverage for poor working families. Within the first six months, unveil your proposals to get us to universal coverage and promptly initiate vigorous steps in that direction.
Nor dare we delay the major changes needed to fundamentally reduce and change American energy consumption. Linking the large expenditures needed to combat global warming and reduce our dependence on foreign oil with the task of restarting the economy will help justify immediate spending.
In international affairs, you have an historic opportunity, perhaps unparalleled since the end of World War II, to reshape international relations. All around the world respect for and trust in the US is at its lowest point in decades. An imperialistic, unilateral foreign policy simply will not work. Fortunately, your election has evoked almost everywhere astonishing levels of hope for change. Quickly strengthen that hope by moving immediately and unequivocally to end torture in every area of US activity and policy.
Other powerful interests will demand that you continue policies that protect and preserve America's military dominance and economic self-interest. Many Christians, I believe, join me in urging you to embrace a genuinely multilateral foreign policy that builds consensus with democratic friends, offers deeper cooperation and respect for emerging powers, and open serious dialogue with dangerous enemies. Lead the world in building a multilateral process that promotes democracy and justice. Global economic structures must be redesigned both to incorporate the reality of growing economic powerhouses like China, India and Brazil and also to give the poorest nations a larger voice. The patterns of international trade should be slanted, not to benefit the richest nations, but the poorest.
Please don't wait until your last year in office to work seriously at resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Early in your first year, signal unequivocally that you intend to use the full weight of American influence to lean on both sides to negotiate a permanent two-state solution that provides peace, security and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Mr. President, you have an historic opportunity to lead the world in building a new global political/economic order that is more just, free, democratic and cooperative.
Finally, the messy issues of abortion and faith-based organizations. You have a fundamental choice to make. There is a large, essentially secular, radical segment of the Democratic Party that is demanding sweeping change. They are only a minority of all Democrats, but they are vocal and organized. They will demand that you end the hiring rights of faith-based organizations when they receive government funds and insist that you sign a "Freedom of Choice Act" which would end the freedom of doctors and hospitals that oppose abortion to act according to their conscience. You might even have enough votes in the House and Senate to pass such partisan measures.
But the result would be disastrous. Large numbers of Catholics and evangelicals (many of whom voted for you) would feel betrayed. (The large number of younger evangelicals who voted for you are even more pro-life than their elders!) Millions of us would vigorously oppose such changes. You would undermine your declared hope to reach across partisan lines to build a strong center. And your hopes of building a bipartisan coalition that would enable you to make substantial, far-reaching changes in areas like health care and energy policy would be seriously undermined.
There is a much better option. Do a careful six-month evaluation of the whole faith-based initiative before you make substantive changes. Include in the dialogue the grass-roots faith-based organizations working among the poor. They will tell you that policies preventing them from hiring on the basis of their religious beliefs would fundamentally undermine their successful programs to empower broken, hurting people. Then improve the program, correct mistakes of the previous administration, increase the funding, and make sure that you protect the identity of faith-based organizations that are often succeeding in difficult circumstances where almost nothing else works.
On abortion, why not be genuinely pro-choice? That would mean retaining, not abandoning, policies that allow doctors and hospitals to follow their conscience and choose whether they want to perform abortions. It would mean not building compulsory payment for abortion into your health care policies (if you do, large numbers of those who voted for you will oppose your proposals). Instead of trying to force millions of Americans to violate their conscience with allegedly "pro-choice" policies that actually deny choice to tens of millions, form a strong center of people (both "pro-choice" and "pro-life" folk) who can agree on a number of concrete programs that will actually reduce the number of abortions. I understand that you will not change your view that abortions should be legal. But could we not work together to form a strong majority that figures out how to make abortion far less frequent?
Building a centrist coalition on the sanctity of human life and faith-based organizations will strengthen your ability to promote far reaching change on health care, energy policy and foreign relations.
One final suggestion. Gather a few very trusted religious leaders for regular, totally confidential dialogue and prayer. Invite them to be honest with you. Let them help you carry your heavy burdens.
That's my advice, Mr. President. I know that giving advice is easy for me to do since I am sort of . . . well, a kind of "community organizer with no responsibilities." But I do promise to pray for you regularly.