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NGOs Have Been Left Out in the Cold

Obama’s Puzzling Silence

by RALPH NADER

President Obama uses his bully pulpit to tout profit-seeking corporations, but he rarely uses it to promote nonprofits that deliver social justice at home and abroad.

When Mr. Obama went to India in November, for example, he was accompanied by corporate CEO’s, and unabashedly promoted U.S. exports and companies like Boeing and Harley-Davidson.

The president says he will go anywhere in the world to promote trade, presumably for the jobs that exports create. Fair enough, assuming fair-trade agreements.

But so far, he has rarely gone anywhere, even to places near the White House, to highlight the good works done by national advocacy and charitable groups seeking a fairer society. It is puzzling why Mr. Obama, who knows how to attract the news media to his cause, has left in the shadows the all-important “independent sector” (to use the language of President Johnson’s health and education secretary John Gardner).

After all, nonprofits also employ millions of people and are a major pillar of the American community. These nonprofits are run by a cadre of workers who probably voted for Mr. Obama in far bigger numbers than they did for his opponent in the presidential election.

At critical points in history, civic values have prevailed over the demands of commerce—and children, workers, consumers, and the environment have all benefited. For example, laws have been passed that abolished child labor, instituted fairer labor standards and safer workplaces, protected consumers from unfair business practices and product defects, and given ordinary people greater access to the courts to hold manufacturers of dangerous products accountable.

All these and other advances in justice could be stopped or eroded by undue influence of commerce over civic values—exemplified in recent decades by a corporate government delivering handouts, bailouts, bloated corporate military contracts, and an unprecedented level of subsidized inequality of wealth between the top 1 percent and the rest of the population.

By using his bully pulpit to emphasize the activities of budget-pressed nonprofits that every day serve the needs of Americans, he could inspire public-service workers, give them visibility, and attract the attention of younger generations to follow careers in public service.

As a lawyer, former teacher, and community organizer, Mr. Obama knows the critical role nonprofits play. In the past century, they led the way for civil rights, civil liberties, environmental and consumer protections, and the alleviation of poverty and illness. In the 19th century, they were in the forefront of demanding the abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, volunteer fire protection, and food and shelter for the poor.

Mr. Obama knows that nonprofits have been overwhelmed by the demands for their services during this Great Recession. Legal services for the poor, nonprofit day-care centers, and many other types of groups strain to keep up with people knocking on their doors for aid.

Yet, though he rhetorically urges more volunteerism, as all presidents do, in his travels around the country, he stops most often at factories and campaign fund-raising events patronized by the wealthy rather than at the regional Salvation Army and other organizations devising solutions to the problems facing America’s most vulnerable people.

Other high-profile events show a similar contrast.

Mr. Obama visits military installations and military academies for major addresses. He has never spoken to any convocation of peace groups. Their numbers and activities would expand were he to do so.

During last year’s debate on health insurance, Mr. Obama, who once preferred a single-payer system (full Medicare for all), invited the chief executives of Aetna and Pfizer—companies that would lose out in a single-payer system—to the White House half a dozen times. Not once did he meet with his erstwhile friend back in Chicago, Quentin Young, a longtime leader of the single-payer movement. What’s more, Mr. Obama errs when he promotes companies as the sole creators of jobs—given how much nonprofits do to lay the groundwork for industries that will eventually create many jobs, such as solar energy and the preservation of aging structures.

It’s time for Mr. Obama to leave the promotion of for-profits to the secretary of commerce and introduce organizations that truly make a difference on the presidential stage. He could start by showing a willingness to give a speech at a special gathering of national citizen groups, representing millions of Americans, as President-elect Jimmy Carter did in 1976. Many advocacy groups don’t have their own conventions, but they would visit Washington to hear from the president.

Nonprofit groups should have higher expectations from Mr. Obama. They must urge him to shift his presidential attentions and priorities and remind him of what both community and organizing mean for the civil society in America.

RALPH NADER is the founder of the Center for Study of Responsive Law, in Washington.