Obama: Sweat the Small Stuff for Big Justice


The imaginative uses of the mighty presidency in American history and its bully pulpit have rarely been much above amateurish when it comes to helping people empower themselves. This has been the case even when the same party controls the White House and both Houses of Congress.

Consider the last opportunities when Clinton and Obama were in that enviable position, during 1993-1994 and 2009-2010, respectively. Both Clinton and Obama fell short, unable even to get an adequate public works agenda passed through Congress (Repair America) that would have produced good, un-exportable jobs in many communities.

Now Obama has lots of excuses as to why this and that cannot be accomplished. Due to his and the congressional Democrats’ inept political hands against the vulnerably vicious and corporatist Republican Party, Obama points to the Republican’s email Senate filibusters, and the stubborn postures of Reps. John Boehner and Eric Cantor as reasons for not really pushing, for example, for a very popular minimum wage that catches up with 1968, inflation-adjusted. (See timeforaraise.org.)

So let’s lower the bar and ask why Mr. Obama doesn’t just use his high visibility to put forces in motion that strengthen our democratic society without requiring legislation or tax revenues? Here are some suggestions, out of many:

1.      Obama could announce his desire to speak to a convocation of leaders of national civic groups that have millions of members around the country. He could highlight their good works via the mass media. He could prompt more philanthropy, especially from the very rich, to these worthy organizations that work to help the poor, children, the environment, beleaguered communities and others  in need. An annual increase of only $10 billion in private donations for more staff positions would produce more than 300,000 jobs a year and provide serious help to millions of people.

I wrote the president last year urging him to visit any Washington, D.C. hotel ballroom to meet with civic leaders, as did president-elect Jimmy Carter in 1976. The office of Michelle Obama replied that his schedule did not have time for such a gathering. Yet, he has gone to numerous distant factories to promote products, even going all the way to India to urge Indians to purchase Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Boeing airplanes.

2.      After graduating from Columbia University, young Barack Obama worked for a few months at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) – a large and well-regarded, student-funded public interest organization involved in numerous community improvements around the state – advocating justice, not charity.

PIRGs operate in about 30 states. Not once has Obama addressed their gatherings and urged that all colleges and universities should provide similar check-offs that would enable millions of students to develop extracurricular civic skills and experiences while improving their society.

Engaging civil society helps balance Obama’s exhortations to students to seek occupational training at institutions of higher education. The president has declined to use his community organizing reputation in New York and Chicago to focus the public and the media on such simple ways to strengthen our weakening democracy.

There is no need to dwell much on comparisons of how much time he has spent cloistered with very wealthy campaign contributors who are further undermining our democracy.

3.      The warring president might expend some of his fame to bring attention to those Americans who are waging peace through direct field involvement, advocacy or with peace studies. The corporate-criminal class gets the presence of the president at trade association meetings, but not the likes of the American Friends Service Committee or Colman McCarthy’s Center for Teaching Peace working to expand peace studies curricula at high schools and colleges (http://washingtonpeacecenter.net).

4.      What about visiting events defending unions under attack by right-wing governors and their corporatist allies or encouraging workers in large companies to unionize as he subsidizes these corporate bosses with many programs?

Remarkably, President Obama studiously avoided going to Madison, Wisconsin in 2011 to support the rallying of workers against Governor Scott Walker’s moves to stripmine worker rights. He also banned Vice President Joe Biden (a self-styled union man) from accepting an invitation there by the Wisconsin Labor Federation.

By contrast, he walked across Lafayette Park in February 2011 to pay homage to the chronically selfish and anti-labor U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He could have gone around the corner to visit the AFL-CIO representing 13 million American workers, but he declined.

5.      Championing, through check-off facilities, so that people can voluntarily band together around specific endeavors would be easy for the president. He could start by establishing check-offs for taxpayer watchdog associations on the 1040 tax return and periodic postal notices to residential addresses inviting people to join a postal consumers’ group. Corporations are massively over-represented compared to citizens at the councils of government.

All companies receiving corporate welfare from taxpayers should be required, as a condition of getting these subsidies, handouts and bailouts, to include in their bills and communications with customers invitations for consumers to band together and support nonprofit organizations with full-time consumer champions fighting for their rights.

Just about every industry in the country – banking, utilities, insurance, fuel, healthcare, food – is on the dole, one way or the other. This simple reciprocity would facilitate tens of millions of Americans to have an organized voice and expertise to defend and extend their livelihoods (http://www.citizensutilityboard.org/).

If President Obama sweats the small stuff, he will empower the American people to take greater charge of their government and their future over the destructive and cowardly corporatism that now dominates Washington, D.C.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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