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What Did President Obama Say to the Nonprofit Sector on Thursday Night?

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As a pep rally, the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte outdid the Republicans' convention in Tampa by miles and miles.  Those Dems can really deliver a speech, not just former President Clinton who could have eschewed the teleprompter and just adlibbed and mesmerized for an hour, but also Vice President Biden, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.  

They were all top notch, and perhaps not quite as soaring as those others, so was President Oba ma's acceptance speech, well delivered by an orator who knows his craft--and has speechwriters commensurate with his oratorical style and gifts.  

The President's speech was like the football coach's talk in the locker room, mostly geared to gin up the enthusiasm of the faithful who might be a little downtrodden with four years of gloomy economics, especially with the post-speech economic numbers showing a slowdown in job creation and a reduction in the unemployment rate to a still way-too-high 8.1 percent (achieved, unfortunately, due to the shrinkage of the labor force as young adults are stopping their job searches).   Obama may be the only president ever to get reelected in the face of stubbornly negative economic indicators and fragile consumer confidence.  

Like the football coach doesn't reveal too much of a gameplan at the pep rally, President Obama's speech cannot be sharply parsed for specific policy clues of interest to the nonprofit sector.  But regarding the President's attitudes, the speech is a goldmine.

Here is the President's only mention of nonprofits and charities in the entire speech, occurring toward the end of the talk:  "We know that churches and charities can often make more of a difference than a poverty program alone. We don't want handouts for people who refuse to help themselves, and we certainly don't want bailouts for banks that break the rules."  The President's staff at HUD and Health and Human Services probably know that it is the nonprofit sector that carries out and delivers on the anti-poverty programs funded by government.  If it weren't for the existence of nonprofits such as community action agencies and community development corporations, government anti-poverty programs would be stuck at the starting gate.  

A couple of times in the President's talk, he used the rhetorical device of coupling messages for different wings of his in-person and television audience, in this instance, getting the word "handouts" into the text as the kind of poverty programs he and we don't want, a signal to the blue dog side of the Democratic Party, juxtapositioned with his and our opposition to bank bailouts, red meat for the progressive wing.  He may not favor bank bailouts, but President Obama's Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, was one of the architects of the bailout that was crafted during the administration of President George W. Bush, a bailout that then Senator Obama supported.  Despite the "banks that break the rules" applause line, Peter Boyer and Peter Schweitzer writing for the Daily Beast/Newsweek note that "nearly four years after the [nation's financial] disaster, there has not been a single criminal charge filed by the federal government against any top executive of the elite financial institution," compared to over 2,000 prosecutions of malefactors during the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s.  

The President juxtapositioned opposites in his text a couple of other times, for example, "We don't think the government can solve all of our problems, but we don't think the government is the source of all of our problems -- (cheers, applause) -- any more than our welfare recipients or corporations or unions or immigrants or gays or any other group we're told to blame for our troubles -- (cheers, applause) -- because -- because America, we understand that this democracy is ours." Was that a little signal to Wall Street from President Obama saying, don't worry, we have your back?  Remember that in 2008, Obama was the candidate of Wall Street, racking up huge contributions from the likes of JPMorgan Chase and afterwards appointed people like Attorney General Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer (head of the criminal division at Justice), whose law firm (Covington & Burling) counted Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Deutsche Bank as solid clients.  Actually, the President understated the issue.  For the economic collapse that occurred in late 2008 and early 2008 and still sucks the lifeblood out of families and communities, the corporate sector, or at least the financial sector of the corporate sector, was largely to blame, turning housing markets into a giant casino that hit the jackpot for the likes of some big lenders and insurers but left most Americans throwing snakeyes.   

President Obama did the same with energy, mentioning his administration's "investing in wind and solar and clean coal." Not many nonprofits in the environmental field think the concept of "clean coal" makes sense, but coupling coal with wind and solar gives the administration's continuing support for coal mining, particularly in mountain states where support of coal mining keeps a couple of Democrats in office.  

In contrast with the acceptance speech of his Republican opponent in Tampa, President Obama called for a number of other commitments that would preserve Head Start, expand community college resources, protect Medicare from the changes proposed in the Ryan budget, and cut back military spending, the latter to fund programs and to reduce the deficit.  Hopefully someone will explain that to President Obama's Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, who has been loudly bemoaning the prospects of military budget cuts that are already mandated in the deficit-related sequestration process.  
To be fair, a pep rally speech doesn't allow for a lot of specifics.  With all of the interests that a pragmatist president like Obama has to balance, it is difficult to imagine that he would accord the nonprofit sector much more than a sliver of the time he devoted throughout the speech extolling the free enterprise system, the job creating potentials of small business entrepreneurs, and the potential of social mobility that everyone can become the next Steve Jobs. 
 
Someone named Eleanor Goldberg writing for the Huffington Post suggested that Obama's speech wasn't about him, as he put it, but "about you," to which Goldberg added, "Yes, you and you and you, nonprofits."  Although she said that the President has pushed for a limit on charitable deductions that disturbed much of the nonprofit sector, she asked, "what's he done for you lately" and answered, "For starters, he's maintained a budget most nonprofits are happy with, personally given an admirable percentage of his income to charity and even made volunteering a priority."   

Goldberg then enumerated six programs or initiatives that President Obama has done that affect the nonprofit sector, starting with his founding National Volunteer Week--demonstrated by his, Michelle's, and Malia's volunteering to build bookshelves at the Browne Education Center in Washington DC.  Goldberg could have just as easily mentioned the Obamas' volunteering in 2011 at the DC Central Kitchen to feed the homeless.  Oddly, Goldberg hit it on the noggin by starting with volunteerism.  The President's policies about the nonprofit sector have a distinctly old-fashioned charity dimension, emphasizing and encouraging volunteerism (or stipended volunteerism) rather than funding and support for a more professional nonprofit industry.  In fact, among the six Obama measures, she repeats the volunteering effort by citing his support for national service programs, actually inherited from the Kennedy-Hatch legislation to boost AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 slots (an AmeriCorps fact sheet on the Corporation for National and Community Service website says that AmeriCorps has only some 80,000 participants. So two out of the six measures Goldberg cites are the Administration's promotion of stipended or free labor for nonprofits.  

She called his stance on funding a "variety-pack budget for nonprofits," citing his proposed increase in the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities as a positive, but acknowledging that that increase wouldn't make up for what he cut from the NEA the year before.  While suggesting his budget for international aid was a "mixed bag," she missed completely the President's proposed meat-axe to the anti-poverty programs run by community action agencies and the cuts in community development programs.  And if it weren't for some members of Congress, the Administration would have pushed through a program of health care insurance subsidies for small employers that would have been entirely for for-profit businesses and left nonprofits, which themselves are largely small employers, invisible and without assistance.  

Like her take on the President's support for the many manifestations of volunteerism, Goldberg counts as one of his six measures for the nonprofit sector the Obama family's personal charitable contributions.  Beyond their showing up for hands-on work at the Browne Educational Center and the DC Central Kitchen, the Obamas are generous with their personal philanthropy, contributing according to Goldberg's count 22 percent of their income to charity, mostly to the Fisher House Foundation that provides low-cost housing to military families.  The Obamas even teamed up with Fox News host Bill O'Reilly to raise money for Fisher House.  Of course, the Obamas did relatively well with their earned income the past few years, unlike many millions of Americans who have languished with unemployment and underemployment, resulting in sluggish if not ephemeral growth in charitable giving for public charities and even for the usually robust religious sector of charitable giving recipients. 

As another of the six highlighted Obama measures for the nonprofit sector, she cites the President's demonstration of "How to Be a Baller at Fundraising," referencing his "Obama Classic Basketball Game" with NBA pros Kevin Durant and Chris Bosh to raise money, she says, for his campaign, and his singing a little from the Al Green songbook at another charity fundraiser.   It is hard to imagine that the President would draw attention to his personal charitable giving and his skill as a fundraiser as examples of his core initiatives for the nonprofit sector. 

The one game-changing initiative of the President was his proposal to cap charitable deductions by wealthy households in order to fund elements of his social welfare initiatives such as job creation and health care reform.  Goldberg cites the critics of the proposal such as the United Way's Brian Gallagher (identified in her article only as a HuffPo blogger) without suggesting, even for the purposes of debate, that the President's proposal for more government funding for these programs (as a result of capped deductions) would benefit nonprofit service providers or that the potential loss of charitable contributions for the proposal would be minimal or that the nonprofits that would be primarily hit would be the big charities serving the affluent, typically universities, museums, and such.  

Goldberg might have mentioned what Obama actually cited in his acceptance speech as far more important than most of what she enumerated, such as his pushing along with the implementation of health care reform through HHS funding for health exchanges and new health insurance cooperatives, his support for job training and job placement programs, many of which are delivered by nonprofits, his executive order that implements a version of the DREAM Act for the children of undocumented immigrants in this country, and even his recent support for legislative efforts to undo the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court that has made an ugly system of campaign finance working through secret donations to and through 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations absolutely hideous.   Realize  further than the President undertook these initiatives with just about zero support from the other side of the aisle in Congress.   His specific proposals for the nonprofit sector--the volunteer days, the Social Innovation Fund, and the Promise Neighborhoods program--tend to be as superficial as the examples Goldberg offered, but his overall social policy initiatives, not framed as emphasizing nonprofits, really count in terms of the core purposes of the nonprofit sector in the U.S.  

If the President didn't really get close to talking about the nonprofit sector as a crucial component of American democracy, the generally superficial indications of the President's support of nonprofits discussed by Goldberg do not do justice to either the nonprofit sector in terms of what it might want or need from the federal government or to President Obama himself whose policy agenda impacting nonprofits is hardly so shallow.  

Toward the end of his acceptance speech, President Obama talked about citizenship and referenced charity, not as a class of organizations, but as a normative behavior.  "We, the people, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense."  Charity is a component part of the President's meaning of citizenship, "the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another," as he put it. 
 
President Obama is spot on in understanding the mutuality involved in citizenship at an individual level.  He and his Republican opponent would do well to understand that citizenship at a societal level requires not only the functional government that Obama described with some eloquence, but a healthy and capable nongovernmental nonprofit sector, able to call to account both government and business when need be, and to protect, advocate for, and mobilize the citizens of the United States who all too often get left behind in the operations and interactions of the public and private sector.  We don't need President Obama or Governor Romney to mouth "I (heart) nonprofits" with feckless insincerity.  We need them to make a firm commitment, not to half-baked, press-oriented nonprofit initiatives, but to the development and strengthening of the nonprofit sector as an indispensable counterpart to government and business--and labor and religion--as the necessary pillars of American democracy.  

 

Rick Cohen is a commentator on the politics of nonprofits and foundations, writer for Nonprofit Quarterly, editor of NPQ's Cohen Report, former executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy


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When the Administration proposed the system of sub... by Rick Cohen on Tuesday, Sep 11, 2012 at 5:01:49 AM
The "community organizer" who took his law degree ... by Miriam Callaghan on Tuesday, Sep 11, 2012 at 5:01:25 PM
Thanks Miriam for reminding OpEd News readers that... by Rick Cohen on Tuesday, Sep 11, 2012 at 9:21:16 PM
He is an inveterate liar, and he will say anything... by Bill Samuel on Tuesday, Sep 11, 2012 at 8:26:25 PM
To give the president some of the benefit of the d... by Rick Cohen on Tuesday, Sep 11, 2012 at 9:34:46 PM
And obama supported the Bush bailout... by Bill Samuel on Wednesday, Sep 12, 2012 at 3:44:55 AM