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Some Feedback for President Obama as Year 1 Ends

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Message Elayne Clift
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Dear Mr. President: As your first year in office comes to a close a year rife with global crises, domestic challenges, and decisions so difficult that the mind boggles I continue to believe that you've shown extraordinary intelligence, calm fortitude, considered judgment, and an admirable sense of humor as you've faced the myriad issues confronting you. From health care to human rights, education to the environment, economics to foreign policy, you have, for the most part, articulated a sense of urgency while at the same time demonstrating careful assessment in the interest of effective decision-making. I am grateful for the dignity you've returned to us as a nation.

And I'm infuriated by knee-jerk critics who oppose you with racist undertones, intentional falsehoods, hyperbole, and incipient violence along with a paucity of facts. How quickly we forget that a year ago a cohort of babbling fascists was at the helm! So please indulge me if I express some concerns at the conclusion of your first year.

First, in a time of unprecedented economic fragility, I remain deeply troubled by your reliance on Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. Like many others, I believe they not only understand the financial game; they are the game. As Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times recently, "[Geitner's] daily calendars reveal that most of his contacts with the financial sector in the first seven months of 2009 were limited to the trinity of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan. " His key advisors, who " do not require Senate confirmation, are largely drawn from the same club. It's hard to see how any public official can challenge a culture that he is marinating in, night and day."

Former chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), Brooksley Born, sounded another warning worth noting on PBS' Frontline: "I think we will have continuing danger from these markets and that we will have repeats of the financial crisis. It may differ in details, but there will be significant financial downturns and disasters attributed to this regulatory gap over and over until we learn from experience." Born's words should not be taken lightly. As head of CFTC, she became alarmed by the lack of oversight and the secrecy surrounding the derivatives market. Her attempts to regulate derivatives rankled then-Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and then-Deputy Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. Together they prevailed upon Congress to stop Born and limit future regulation. (Born was fired.)

As one journalist noted, Americans are still owed "a clear account of the financial events of the last two years and of whom, if anyone, is seriously to blame." I don't have much confidence that Mr. Summers, Mr. Geithner or Ben Bernanke are the men for the job.

I'm concerned about some of your other appointments too. Where, for example, has Kathleen Sebelius been as Americans desperately debate health care reform, hopefully with a public option and without a Stupak Amendment? Rahm Emanuel notwithstanding, why didn't you appoint Dr. Howard Dean, with his grasp of health policy, to be Secretary of HHS?

Then there's the sticky matter of the war in Afghanistan. It's a no-win scenario for you, of course: No matter what you decided to do, there were bound to be vociferous critics on both the left and the right. We can argue into infinity what the right strategy is. Certainly no one wants to see us abandon women and children to the Taliban again and global terrorism is a real and present threat. Pakistan matters enormously in such a tenuous region of the world. Still, what can actually be achieved before we start pulling out in eighteen months in such a complex country whose culture we don't understand and where corruption is unlikely to be contained? How can we justify the costs in both financial and human terms? Why do military options still rise to the top of a boiling-over pot when considering competing priorities? If and when we ever get to leave, what will be the outcome of our presence there?

Back at home, why is it taking so long to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell?" Why hasn't the Employee Free Choice Act passed? Why have you failed to end the excesses and abuses inherent in the Bush/Cheney national security apparatus? Will the U.S. sign on to the treaty banning land mines? While I applaud the fact that you take your time to study issues before deciding a course of action, sometimes I wish you could be just "a little less Gandhi, a little more LBJ," as one commentator said, Vietnam notwithstanding.

Still, yours is a profoundly challenging job and I recognize the contributions you've made in one short year. As Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote in The Nation, "denouncing the administration's missteps and failures doesn't get us very far" as we face our future. While we may be a long way from achieving all that you promised in your campaign, such paradigm shifts take more than one election to achieve. They "require continued mobilization, strategic creativity, and yes, audacity on the part of independent thinkers, activists and organizers," as Ms. vanden Heuvel wrote. "At least we now have the political space to push for far-reaching reforms." For that, Mr. President, I remain deeply grateful.

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Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)
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