Dear Mr. President: Letters and Memos to the Incoming Executive
Here in Kenya, your ancestral land, we claim you as a true son of Africa. Your name, Baraka, means blessing. You assume the leadership of the United States at a time when Americans groan in the throes of economic woes. A man whose house is on fire does not care about his neighbor’s dying ox. Understandably, you will focus your energy on extinguishing the fire of economic recession currently menacing Americans. This may sound nepotistic, but in Africa we say that a person whose relative sits on top of a mango tree always eats ripe and delicious mangoes. Africa expects many blessings from you, as our relative, in your exalted position as president. Yes, you can bless Africa by leading the international community to bring peace to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Darfur; political stability to Zimbabwe and economic development in trade and aid to Africa.
For too long we have heard lofty rhetoric from world leaders, including your predecessor, that Africa matters—rhetoric that rarely translated into reality. You stand on the cusp between despair and hope for America. Change has come to America, you once said. Africa also pleads for change, and you can help bring it about on our continent. The power you wield is to kindle hope, create opportunity and generate change in America and the world. For no matter how powerful a man, he cannot make the rains fall on his farm alone. God bless you, Baraka!
Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, S.J., is a lecturer in theology at Hekima College Jesuit School of Theology in Nairobi, Kenya, and rector of the college’s Jesuit community.
You set out to assemble a cabinet and group of advisors much like a liberal arts university would select its faculty. Your “team of rivals,” as they are called, allows you to be the professor in chief, welcoming ideas from myriad political experiences. Presumably this is no accident. You have attended highly regarded institutions of higher education and were once a professor of law. Now you have taken a model inspired by American universities and applied it to your nascent presidency, at least in part to provoke the type of debate and perspective that stimulates revolutionary thinking. You have said on many occasions that if it were not for your education, you would not be where you are today.
Unfortunately, the cost of higher education is already increasing at a greater rate than middle- and lower-class families can afford. According to a biannual report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, “College tuition continues to outpace family income and the price of other necessities, such as medical care, food, and housing.... Whatever the causes of these tuition increases, the continuation of trends of the last quarter century would place higher education beyond the reach of most Americans and would greatly exacerbate the debt burdens of those who do enroll.”
There will be no bailout for families who have already taken on sizeable debt to pay for education, but since the economy you inherited will need time to rebound, this situation can only be projected to continue. While America limps, it is the obligation of all levels of government not to lose sight of its future. Education cannot simply be put on hold while solutions are sought for failed banks and auto companies.
President Obama, the opportunities you had to advance your education still influence you today, but if proper attention is not given to reducing the cost of a university degree, these experiences may not be possible for all segments of America. Good luck!
Matthew P. Moll, a 2003 graduate of Marquette University, served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and is studying new media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
I have not had higher hopes or greater expectations for any president since John F. Kennedy. You are every bit as intelligent, articulate and capable as he was. You seem wonderfully agreeable and genuinely decent. Your call for a new era of bipartisanship is admirable.
You have set out an ambitious agenda that includes rescuing the economy, undoing the free-market idolatry that resulted in ruinous deregulation, reversing arrogant and self-defeating unilateralism in the conduct of foreign affairs, repairing the decades-long neglect of our infrastructure, instituting sane, long-range environmental protections and achieving universal health care.
But do not be deceived. Great presidents must take on powerful enemies as well as tackle great crises. Lincoln had the Copperheads. Franklin D. Roosevelt had the “economic royalists.” You will have yours, too. Sooner or later, as day follows night, the diehards will set out to frustrate any process of significant change.
Be resolute. Be tough. Stick to your beliefs. Markets were made for man, not the other way around. Free enterprise is a guide, not a god. The world is now and forever interdependent. No country or society can go it alone. The environment is our home; it is not for sale. The poor will be with us always; and as always, the poorest and most vulnerable will need our help.
With malice toward none, Mr. President, but with firmness to do what is right, remember you cannot make everyone a friend. Partisanship is not pleasant. But there are times when it is necessary. Sometimes a measure of a president’s success is the vehemence of the enemies he makes.
Peter Quinn, a novelist and essayist, was the speechwriter for two New York governors. His latest book is Looking for Jimmy: In Search of Irish America (Overlook Press, 2007).
There is a psalm in the Bible that says, “Truth springs up from the ground.” The ground is where ordinary people live, the people you addressed most frequently during your campaign. But I want to direct your eyes and your heart to brothers and sisters who live below the ground, Mr. President, those deemed so unredeemable that they have been condemned to die.
For 20 years now I have accompanied the condemned to their deaths and have been there for them at the end so they could see the face of someone who respects their dignity. I have seen state killing close up, seen with my own eyes the agony, the torture of human beings anticipating death, trying to bolster courage to walk to the killing chamber. They plead with me, “Please pray that God holds up my legs.”
Is it possible, Mr. President, that as a country we are in moral trouble for sanctioning torture of suspected terrorists in Guantánamo because we already practice torture in death chambers across the land? There men and women, bound hand and foot, are forced down onto gurneys and killed—often with family members watching, their own mothers bearing mute witness to their deaths.
You have ushered in hope for a new America, President Obama. Join me in the hope that we will soon shut down not only Guantánamo, but our own killing chambers as well. Only then can we stand tall alongside the vast majority of countries around the globe that have embraced human rights by no longer killing their citizens.
I pray, I work for this new America.
Helen Prejean, C.S.J, is the author of Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents.
While I speak only for myself with this advice, I am fortunate to be a participant in the extraordinary phenomenon of Silicon Valley, a culture and business model that I would boldly argue has been a source of substantial good as well as economic growth, not just for our country but for the world. We have seen unprecedented progress in information technology, health care and emerging clean technologies. So please, Mr. Obama:
• Champion entrepreneurism, risk-taking and innovation with your words, legislation and regulation. Allow failure. Do not make business failure illegal.
• Do not overreach with regulatory and legislative “fixes” for the current economic crisis. While many proposals may be crowd pleasers, consider the impact on future entrepreneurs and the capital formation they need to pursue their dreams. Consider the moral hazard created with many well-meaning ideas to soften blows. Help rebuild an environment where initial public offerings are possible and small public companies can afford to exist.
• Given our recent economic interventions, push back against the inevitable pressures to politicize the government’s new investments in private companies. We do not need new Fannie Maes and Freddie Macs. As soon as our stabilization objectives have been achieved, sell these positions back to the private sector.
• Make science and engineering education a national priority. Challenge the resistance to change in our calcified education bureaucracy. Use your ability to communicate and connect with young people to make the case that science and engineering are “cool” and noble professions that can make the world a better place. Encourage immigration, especially among scientists and engineers.
• Although the benefits of free trade may not be perfectly distributed, you do know that the benefits to our country and our trading partners are overwhelming. Do not pander to fears of free trade for short-term political advantage.
• Finally, do not seduce Silicon Valley with the narcotics of subsidies, protections and bailouts, making us just another pig at the trough of the federal government. May we have the courage and intellectual honesty to resist these temptations.
Bob Finocchio Jr. is a corporate director, private investor, part-time professor and consultant.
First and foremost, I would suggest that you find ways that help you to remain centered and grounded, in order to meet the new demands of your daily life and the well-being of your family. I would recommend that your work as president of the United States focus on cultivating the common good and promoting the dignity of every human person, both for the family of nations and our own national community. Restoring good international relationships based on mutual respect and equal regard is important for bringing about genuine peace and justice. Since you are coming into office in this difficult time globally and nationally, I would suggest that you focus on issues that are related to the dignity of the human person, and that you make it a priority to address the wars in the Middle East and other parts of the world that have torn apart our family of nations.
There are other related concerns that rob people of dignity, such as the food crisis, trafficking of human persons and genocide. Nationally, it should be your priority to restore those systems that affect the most vulnerable in our midst: education, health care, immigration, housing and employment. I would also encourage you to reconsider your pledge to sign the Freedom of Choice Act in light of the far-reaching and devastating effects its implementation will have on so many.
Gabino Zavala is auxiliary bishop for the San Gabriel Region, Diocese of Los Angeles.
Healing the wounds of division was an important part of your campaign message, and I hope this task remains in the foreground of your presidential agenda. We are in dire need of the height, depth and breadth of a vision in which we recognize our common humanity and so can reach across divisions of every sort to care for one another as brothers and sisters.
Undoubtedly, one of the festering wounds is discord over abortion law and policy. Is there any hope for healing this wound? Openly acknowledging that abortion is not a triumph for anyone, expressing appreciation for how many efforts to reduce abortion may be deeply attuned with the goal of social justice, and demonstrating in domestic and international policy agendas a commitment to work toward a society in which abortion is rare would all be steps in this direction. These efforts could also help to set the tone for a robust bipartisan national conversation on how to eliminate all forms of brutality—including torture and the death penalty—and respond to the needs of all of the poor and most vulnerable in our own communities and throughout the world.
In all that you do, help us to move beyond the narrow and rigid confines of individualistic rhetoric toward a vision that inspires a true sense of solidarity and the sacrifices this might entail. In this lies our identity, our dignity, our future as a people and the positive contribution we can make to our increasingly interdependent world.
Amy Uelmen is director of the Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work at Fordham University School of Law in New York City.
Memos to the President
I propose that President Obama take back his pledge to lower taxes, and instead persuade Congress to raise them. Amid the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our many infrastructure needs, universal health care and the costs of the economic bailout, the government needs more money.
The American middle class, the target beneficiary of the cuts, is not suffering from any serious shortage of consumer goods. It gained them by going down the primrose path of credit card debts, bad mortgages and no savings. It was seduced without much difficulty by an excessively deadly consumerist culture—more and more of everything that suits one’s fancy.
The middle class now needs government help in creating new jobs and relieving people of some of their debts, even if foolishly incurred; and a tax cut will be of little help to them. A government stimulus package oriented toward infrastructure needs and improved education would help the middle class more in the long run. It could surely help to put in place a budget-increasing universal health care program.
Democrats have themselves been seduced by a Republican, conservative-driven ideology, always wanting to put more money into private pockets. We have been there, done that. If any change is most needed, a rejection of that ideology should be near the top of the list. Raising taxes would be a good start.
Daniel Callahan is a senior research scholar and president emeritus of The Hastings Center.
The Arab world celebrated Barack Obama’s victory because many understood the historic significance of an African-American becoming president of the United States. Given the toll taken by eight years of the Bush administration’s policies, Arabs, too, longed for “change we could believe in.” Having just returned from the region, I know that expectations for the Obama administration will be hard to meet. This could prove dangerous, because even a small disappointment could bring a negative mood swing that would spell trouble for the United States and embolden extremists.
Since resolution of the “big issues” (like the establishment of a Palestinian state or ending the “occupation” of Iraq) will not happen quickly, President Obama must look for “bite-sized” early actions to sustain the hope that he will open a new chapter in U.S.-Arab relations, giving him time to address more fundamental concerns. The speech he has promised to deliver to the world’s Muslims within his first 100 days in office is an important start. Appointing Arab-Americans to meaningful roles in his Middle East peacemaking team could also send an important early signal of balance to Arabs.
Obama’s pledge to work to open a dialogue with Iran and Syria should not be seen as coming at the expense of the Arab allies whose friendship with the United States has cost them. An early meeting with the leaders of the Persian Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority would make it clear that U.S. dialogue with Iran and Syria will be done with and in support of our friends. Finally, because close attention will be paid to every word President Obama will say about the Arab-Israel conflict, he must be balanced and instill confidence. If Palestinians are going to be asked to wait yet again, the new U.S. president cannot be seen “giving away the store” or letting Israel continue to take what it wants while the Palestinians suffer under a harsh occupation.
James J. Zogby is president and founder of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C.
As Barack Obama steps forward to take the oath of office, he will be taking that next step in the journey through the paddy fields of Java and on the dusty roads of Kenya, finding himself and asserting his identity as an inclusive leader. On election night, he stood in Grant Park in Chicago proclaiming to the world, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, tonight is your answer.” At his inauguration, he will look down the Mall, knowing that at the other end stood another African-American in 1963, proclaiming “I have a dream.” While pledging health care and good economic management at home, he has the opportunity to pledge his country’s support for those who work for peace and prosperity in all those paddy fields and on all those dusty roads where human flourishing remains but a dream. The wealth and power of his nation will yield more internationally if he works inclusively with other governments, respecting the culture of the Javanese rice farmer and acknowledging the aspirations of the Kenyan trader.
Gone are the days when the United States can go it alone or with “coalitions of the willing,” reconstituting the global landscape. The paddy fields and dusty roads will be safer and more productive if President Obama rekindles the dream of due process in international forums and equal protection for people of all races, regardless of their nationality. Change will not be easy; but together, as one world, “Yes we can.”
Frank Brennan, S.J., is a professor of law at Australian Catholic University.