An Open Letter to the President: It's Time for Change, Not Spending Freezes

Dear President Obama:

I know you are a very smart guy. After all, not only have you graduated from Ivy League universities like Columbia and Harvard, and taught a heady subject like constitutional law at one of the top law schools in the country, but you have had real-world success, reaching the highest office in the country while still in your forties (and managing to do it while being an African American candidate named Barack Hussein Obama).

So I write this letter with a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for what you have accomplished, as well as with faith that you are smart and savvy enough to understand what is happening in our country right now. After all, during the presidential campaign, you were often criticized by commenters (including me) for not responding strongly enough to the lies and dirty tricks thrown at you by John McCain, Sarah Palin and the Republican party, and yet you showed in the end that you knew what you were doing, better than we did. You had properly measured the temperature of the country, and you were rewarded with the presidency.

You also have to know how much your candidacy meant to so many people. You weren't just another aspirant for high office, you captured the hope and optimism of millions of previously disaffected voters. I think I am a good person to comment on this because I never viewed you as a savior, but rather as a really smart, seemingly competent politician, who was a mainstream Democrat more than a progressive. So my expectations weren't as sky-high as many others. But it is clear that you were elected to the presidency by a coalition of Americans -- young and old, progressive and moderate, urban and rural, East and West, North and South -- who agreed on one thing: change.

Change was your campaign slogan (and a good one), but it was more than just that. When McCain tried to co-opt the change message, it fell on deaf ears. Why? It wasn't credible. People really believed you would bring change. They believed it was something to which you were committed, not a marketing strategy you just signed off on.

Which brings me to the reason I am writing you this open letter today. President Obama, I think I speak for many, many Americans when I say: Have you forgotten why you were elected?

The Republicans want Americans to believe that the election of a GOP candidate to the U.S. Senate in liberal Massachusetts was about a glorification of the Republican party, the death of the Democratic party, and a rejection of health care reform. But anyone paying attention -- and I have to believe you know this -- could see it was about anger at the raw deal the average American is getting right now, all while big corporations (namely, banks) prosper. The two issues underlying the Massachusetts anger were unemployment and Wall Street, because they stood for this larger principal. People are out of work, and yet the banks are foreclosing mortgages and failing to lend to citizens and small businesses with good credit, all while paying their executives billions of dollars in bonuses (and after the American taxpayers forked out hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the banks).

Mr. President, it's not that complicated, and I know you know this. I don't agree with the voters' choice in Massachusetts (as I wrote last week, I think they cut off their noses to spite their faces), but I understand the anger. And after the election, I thought to myself, "Finally, now the White House will have to admit that there is a problem and do something about it."

You see, Mr. President, while I think you have been a good administrator, making some smart executive decisions in ways that your predecessor did not, you have failed to let the American people feel like you are committed to change. I believe that appearance can blur reality (like with health care, where a flawed but mostly positive bill is unpopular mostly because the Republicans did a better job of demonizing it and lying about it than you and the Democrats did of advocating for it), but the reality of many of your decisions in your first year do not comport with the idea of change.

Specifically, let's talk about the two issues that boiled over in Massachusetts: unemployment and Wall Street. A lot of people smarter than I am have argued that the message from Massachusetts is that your administration has to change course on these two issues. History shows that when Democrats try to be "Republican Lite," it's a recipe for disaster (like in 2002). Why would voters choose a fake Republican when they can have the real thing?

No, what will turn around the fortunes of your presidency and the Democratic party is for you to re-embrace the change you promised all of us in 2008. And really put change into action.

I will give you some concrete examples relating to Wall Street and unemployment. We all know that the financial crisis of 2008 was precipitated by the accumulation of nearly 30 years of deregulation, which allowed financial executives to take crazy win-win risks (they got paid massive bonuses, even as their bets lost). And yet, you have a lead economic advisor (Larry Summers) who is best known for being a deregulation advocate in the Clinton administration (and continued with the same kind of language while working for you), and you have a treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, who, while with the New York Federal Reserve, was smack in the middle of the AIG disaster (and he just came out against the Move Your Money initiative).

In short, the leaders of your economic team are (in both substance and appearance) closely aligned with Wall Street. How is this change? It isn't. And it only stokes Massachusetts-like anger.

As for unemployment, Americans are out of work and angry. They may understand, on some level, that your administration didn't create this mess, and that there is only so much that you can do to get the country out of it. But they want to know that you are on their side, and that you are doing what you can. So it is puzzling why you would respond to the Massachusetts loss by announcing a plan for a spending freeze. Who will like this proposal? Well, Republicans, who will never come over to your side anyway (after all, it was something McCain proposed during the campaign), and the financial industry. What won't it do? Help create jobs. So, again, you are viewed (not unfairly) as cozying up to the banks while neglecting average Americans. Paul Krugman called your freeze proposal "appalling on every level" and "bad economics."

Mr. President, based on your track record in running your campaign, you earned from me immense patience and respect for your approach. I trusted that you must know what you were doing, even as you appointed people like Geithner and Summers, stayed quiet on health care, let the Democrats in the House and Senate take control of key legislation like the stimulus, and sought to work with Republicans even after, again and again, they made it absolutely clear that they were not willing to make any deals that would give you any kind of political success. As you made what appeared to be questionable judgment after questionable judgment, I gave you a lot of slack, trusting you had a plan.

Well, Mr. President, I'm here to tell you that with your reaction to the Massachusetts election, I have officially rescinded your benefit of the doubt. And I know that many, many Americans who support you agree with me. To be clear, I (and we, I'm sure) still support you and still believe you have the intelligence and character to be a great leader and president. It's just that it's time for you to recognize that you've made a mistake and right the ship.

It's time for you to take actions that show Americans that you support them, not Wall Street; that you know they are out of work, and this fact is a priority driving your administration. It's time to stop making proposals that will assuage your detractors on the right and the powers-that-be in the financial industry. (Who cares what Republicans think? The party's approval ratings are lousy, too.)

People care about jobs and about fairness (they're struggling while Wall Street prospers). They don't care about deficits (that's the main concern of the bank-leaning advisors in your administration and Republicans). Sure, deficits are important, and long-term fiscal prudence is a good thing. But you have to prioritize, and right now, jobs should be the key.

It's time to be bold, Mr. President. Where is that audacity of hope? It's time to introduce a bold jobs-creation bill, and to replace your Wall Street-stained economic team members with individuals not tainted by having helped cause the financial crisis. Trying to make your detractors and those that created our current mess happy is no way to lead, and no way to galvanize support. More importantly, it's no way to solve our problems. It's time to declare to the American people, in words and deed, that starting today, you have received the message of Massachusetts (not the fake meaning assigned by Republicans, but what the voters were really saying). It's time for you to be the sincere, inspiring leader for whom they voted.

In short, Mr. President, it's time for change. Only time will tell if the country can recover from the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush. I can only imagine what further damage would be inflicted by more Republican rule. It's up to you, Mr. President, to correct your course and lead us to a better future. You've shown once that you can be an advocate of change. It's time for you to demonstrate once again that you are the man for the job. Please.

Mitchell Bard