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NOTE: Every four years, since 1985, I have
written a letter to the candidate elected (or re-elected) as President of the
The letter is actually sent.
This is the 2009 version, and probably the most important one (to me)
that I’ve ever written.
Dear Mr. President: Barak Obama,
almost everyone I know, since November I’ve been wondering if it was all a
dream. In my lifetime, we have gone
from segregation of restaurants, restrooms, and water fountains to an election
that places an African American family in the White House.
many others I know, my pride in my country has been re-born. The clichés we grew up learning about
America’s freedoms—the clichés that too often turn to
cynicism when you grow up discover the gulf between American ideals and American
reality—those clichés have new life now.
Mr. President, this Sunday is reserved
every year at All
Souls Unitarian Church as a time to honor and
celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr. It is hard to imagine any greater honor
to his memory than what this country will witness on Tuesday in your
many ways I don’t envy your task. I
doubt that any President ever entered office with expectations as high as most
Americans have for you. Overall, we
are expecting that…
I say all this, of course, with tongue in cheek. We all have high expectations, and I
fear your greatest challenge is not the problems we face, but the expectations
we have of you that no person can possibly fulfill.
Few presidents have ever entered office with a stronger
popular hope for success, anticipating that America stands
in a position now to regain its vision.
Few presidents enter office with so much confidence about the future from
the American people. Even those who
don’t share your political values, those who didn’t and probably never would
vote for you, acknowledge that your election fulfills a great promise and turns
a page in the American story to a refreshing new chapter.
While few presidents have come to office with such hopeful
confidence from the American people, it is also true that, with the possible
exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, few presidents have come to office to
face so many and such far-reaching challenges.
We are entangled in two wars, neither of which has a
successful end in sight. Our
economy has taken a nose-dive more disastrous than since the depression. Along with the economy, key parts of our
national policy infrastructure are threatened, such as social security and the
national debt. Our health care
system, which is the most expensive on earth, is, overall, among the least
effective, failing to serve millions of people at all, including millions of
children, and driving millions more into personal bankruptcy.
Our respect from around the world is at what seems like an
all-time low, and along with a loss of respect comes a loss of credibility,
influence, and leadership. American
confidence in our own government is also at an all-time low; government is
perceived as in the control of lobbyists, and elected officials are seen
primarily as influence-salesmen.
Long established protections of civil liberties, such as government
needing a court warrant to spy on citizens, and prohibitions against torture,
and respect for international treaties, seems to be crumbling before our
I’m sure I don’t need to continue this list of challenges—I
expect you visit them every day, if not every night in your sleep. My point is a cautionary one. You come into office with the highest
popular set of expectations for success, and you are expected to tackle problems
that may be the most demanding and intractable ever to face a new
What can I say other than “Good Luck” with that, and
Well, there are a few things
I can say, not so much advice—I know you have advisers far more insightful
than I am—so I offer not advice, but aspiration. Wish.
of all, I hope you will not hesitate to call on us, even “rally” us—the
American people—to join in the effort to resolve these issues.
are at a time in history, I think, when most people are willing to do something,
to give something of themselves, to
insure a better future. I was born
after the Second World War, so I don’t personally remember, though I’ve heard
plenty of stories, about how this country pulled together to reach a common
goal. This was true even if the
efforts were mostly symbolic, like victory gardens, or only somewhat
sacrificial, like rationing. It’s
time to trade in the spirit of “every one for themselves,” for a renewed sense
of “we’re all in this together.”
It is that sense of common cause that may be what is missing
in the current set of crises. After
September 11, the American people as a whole hungered to find ways to come
together and unite our efforts to ensure a safe future. But very little was asked of us. We were told it was important to return
to our normal activities, and well, keep shopping. There were men and women who were of age
who harnessed their wish to help by enlisting in the military. Unfortunately, most of them were sent to
a war that had nothing to do with protecting our country from terrorism. For the rest of us, the battle against
terrorism was little more than a television miniseries, which ended when we
turned the TV off.
Our various crises of today, I think, rise to a level that
calls out for national unity. It is
in that sense that I hope you won’t be afraid to call on us to join efforts
together. I know you’ve been part
of a conversation about a program of national volunteer service. I can’t help but feel that may head us
down a right path, even though any program with the word “compulsory” attached
to it is bound to stick in my Unitarian craw.
I have been a minister for 25 years now. I expect all ministers of all
denominations share in this observation:
that the more people give to their church through volunteer time or
financial contribution or leadership, the greater the personal benefit they
receive from their church membership.
I don’t know if it works the same way with citizenship, but I
do know that right now being an American carries with it too much feel of
helplessness. I don’t know what the
answer is, but I have confidence that our country will be healthier when we
citizens feel we are doing something to help solve problems, and not just
spectators who hand the problems over to politicians. I hope you can sprinkle a little JFK
into your efforts, recalling his most remembered words from his 1961
inauguration: “Ask not what your
country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
It is almost paralyzing to reflect on the enormity of the
problems we face. And yet, I’ve
read just a bit about organizational development, especially as it relates to
churches, but also with broader application. We are told it is often best to build on
our strengths rather than focus on our weaknesses. You come to office with an abundance of
personal strengths, and I am confident those will serve you well.
On the top of the list of strengths, something that seems all
too rare among politicians, is your sense of humility. I’ve often felt that humility is too
often overlooked as one of the great human virtues. You, above all people, appear amazed by
your extraordinary rise in politics, and you seem as astonished as anyone else
by its improbable and unexpected success.
You seem to understand that success comes not entirely from
your own talents and achievements, but from the people who place their
confidence in your judgment and leadership. In that sense, your success is earned
not so much by what brought you to office, but more by what people expect from
your leadership after January 20.
This is surely a humbling realization.
Fortunately, this is helped by another personal strength you
bring to office. Healthy humility
brings with it an eagerness to seek counsel from those well experienced on
complex issues. So far, this
appears to be something characteristic to your style. Most analysis suggests that you have
chosen advisors well, and those who know you seem to report with unanimity your
willingness to listen to others with open mind.
One aspiration that we Americans have been hungering for is
to come together in unity as a society.
For too long we have felt ourselves a nation unnecessarily divided in
itself. With your election, we see
an opportunity to turn that around.
In your words that launched your political career in 2004,
“There is not a liberal
America and a conservative
America—there is the
United States of
America. There is not a Black America and a
White America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the
United States of
Few of us are naïve enough to think such sense of unity can
happen overnight—or in four years, or eight years, or twenty-eight years. Or maybe even ever. Your election does not bring national
unity, but what it has brought, for the first time in my memory, is the daring
thought, the audacious hope, that unity is possible. That is something that was previously
outside the reach of anyone’s dreams.
I appreciate that it is not just rhetoric. On Tuesday, you bring to your
inauguration ceremonies the prayers of Eugene Robinson, the first openly gay Bishop of in
the American Episcopal Church, a man whose election has caused self-reflective
distress throughout the Anglican Communion. You also bring the prayers of
evangelical leader Rick Warren, whose stand against gay marriage in
at odds with your views, but who is willing to support your pledge for national
unity. Your inauguration will also
bring the prayers of the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a hero of the civil rights movement
in the 1960s, and a life-long defender of human rights for all.
I mentioned earlier the importance of humility. You seem to have the rare ability to
combine that asset with a talent for instilling confidence in others. That was evident in your campaign motto
“Yes, We Can!,” and while I understand that such a motto is a useful political
tool—even, one might say, a political gimmick—it succeeded in inspiring
confidence in millions of people who have felt not only disenfranchised but
helpless. Over the years, Americans
in general seem to have succumbed to a kind of fatalism that says we can’t do
anything to stem the downward economic spiral. We can’t seem to make the world like and
respect us no matter what we do. We
can’t even get along well with each other, being plagued by divisions of race,
religion and ideologies.
But when you said “Yes, We Can,” even the cynical entertain
the possibility that we can shape the future.
True confidence can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. A sense of confidence instills a sense
of power. A feeling of having power
is a prerequisite to exercising power.
To the extent you can continue to pass that confidence on, we may regain
our moral strength and character as a nation. Your electoral victory makes “Yes, We
Can” much more than an empty campaign slogan. It happened.
Like most candidates, you made many promises in the campaign,
some of which I am sure will be too challenging or even impossible to keep. But on this Sunday which celebrates the
legacy of Martin Luther King, the greatest and seemingly most
impossible challenge of all has been accomplished. When you and your family go to your home
in the White House on Tuesday night, one significant piece of Dr. King’s “dream” will be realized.
Mr. President, every four years since 1985, I have written
these open sermon/letters to the newly elected President. More often than not, I spent a great
deal of those letters listing concerns I have for his handling the job over the
next four years. This letter is
different, in some ways easier to write and in some ways more difficult. It is easier to write because of the
extraordinary circumstances of this election. It is more difficult to write because it
isn’t easy to get beyond those extraordinary circumstances and focus on the next
There will be mistakes that are made in your leadership. You, and those who advise you, are
human. You know that. We are fortunate, as I mentioned
earlier, to have a leader with some humility.
And yet, in some ways the burden of leadership will rest
heavier on your shoulders than any of your predecessors, with the possible
exception of Lincoln’s second election. Your election symbolizes the victory of
American ideals, and reflects positively on the diverse makeup of our
society. My biggest concern, I
guess—my biggest fear, even—is that when you make mistakes, as you will, it
will reflect on that diversity. My
biggest fear is that people will hold you responsible for the destiny of all
minorities in America. Were that to happen, the American
experiment will have failed.
So I close my comments with this hope. Your election represents the triumph of
an American vision of human equality and justice. That seems to be, for good reason, the
theme of this inaugural week. Your
race matters to the extent that this American vision has been achieved. But my deepest hope is that in four
years, your race won’t matter, won’t be an issue, won’t even be noticed. In four years, I hope that you won’t be
thought of as “our first African American President,” but you will become,
instead, simply “our President.”
Your successes or failures will be attributable to your own political
values, your advisors, and your policies.
The successes or mistakes of your Administration will be your successes
Your race is profoundly important this week. In large part because of your race, your
inauguration is a monumental milestone in American history. But my hope is that, beginning on
Wednesday, the day after the inauguration, in the minds of the American people,
you are no longer our “African American President.” You are our President. Period. Your race is important in defining who
you are as a person. That can’t be
denied. But it should never again
be a defining aspect of your job or any person’s job.
I admire you, but I don’t envy you. You carry into office the highest
popular expectations, you will face among the most serious policy challenges,
and you carry weight all the aspirations of minorities in this country. The most hopeful part, however, is that
you take with you, I believe, the best wishes the whole country, including those
who voted against you.
In a previous open sermon/letter I wrote over a decade ago to
one of your newly elected predecessors, I pleaded with the new President that I
wanted him to be my President, too.
Not President to just those who voted for him. In a way that no other President could,
you, President Obama, have the opportunity to serve as
everyone’s President. Your early
decisions in planning for your administration indicate that is precisely what
you want to be.
And you take with you all the best wishes of the American
people. More extensive best wishes
than any previous President I think.
THAT’S the Good News. . . .
And let’s just stop with the good news. There is no bad news this week.
Good luck. And
The Rev. Bruce Clear, minister
All Souls Unitarian
P.S. By the way,
President Obama, yesterday a water pipe in our crawl
space at home froze and burst. I
was just wondering if maybe you might have a phone number for Joe the Plumber that you could pass on.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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