The Common Good
February 2011

Tinkering is Not Enough

by Jim Wallis | February 2011

Time and again, we heard from President Obama on the campaign trail that Washington was broken and he was running for president to fix it.

Time and again, we heard from President Obama on the campaign trail that Washington was broken and he was running for president to fix it. This was true then, and his presidency has confirmed it -- Washington, D.C., is a broken system that needs to be changed. But early in the Obama presidency, his administration decided that the system was more broken than they had imagined, special interests were more powerful, and the influence of money over everything was almost complete. So they decided to work within that broken system, work inside the way it had always been done, and try to get some things done for people. That was a mistake.

"Change is easy if you're just talking about tinkering around the edges," Obama said in February 2010. "Change is harder when you actually dig in and try to deal with the structural problems that have impeded our progress for too long." What he has found is that change is hard, even when you tinker around the edges, as long as the system is broken. We've seen tinkering around the edges when it comes to the poor, our economic system, the war in Afghanistan, and immigration reform. But these systems don't need just tinkering, they need deep change.

In agreeing in December to extend tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, President Obama got some good things for working families: the payroll and middle-class tax cuts, the extension of unemployment benefits, and various refundable tax credits. But the president is presiding over a massive redistribution of wealth that has been going on for a very long time -- the redistribution of wealth from the middle and the bottom to the top of American society -- leaving us with the greatest economic inequality in American history. This will only grow larger with the Obama "compromise."

There is “socialism” in America, but it's only for the rich. Risk has been socialized for some of the very richest people; the "free market" pain is distributed to all the rest. The national economic philosophy is clearly to reward the casino gamblers on Wall Street and to leave the majority of the country standing outside the casino with a tin cup, hoping that the gamblers are at least big tippers. In a meeting in early December with White House staffers, I said that many of us in the faith community will not make this kind of compromise. Providing more benefits for the very wealthiest people in America is not only bad economics and bad policy; it is fundamentally immoral.

When I listened to the president's December speech in Afghanistan, I wept. Many of the things he said about our progress in Afghanistan are just not true, and they ignore the grim reality that the approach we have taken in that sad nation is fundamentally wrong. I recalled that most of the names of the young Americans up on the Vietnam Memorial's black wall were killed after we knew the war was unwinnable. The war in Afghanistan is also unwinnable, and my tears were over the many young Americans -- and even more Afghans, mostly civilians -- who will keep dying there. I feel deeply for the mostly working-class kids, and their families, who have borne the burden of this war while the more affluent are not affected at all by its pain and suffering. The problem is not the kids in uniform but the generals, whose only way of operating is the pursuance of endless war, and who have completely hemmed in their commander in chief. I told the White House staffers that many of us in the faith community will fight against this war and the untold suffering it continues to cause.

I also said the administration should act immediately to free Bernard Pastor. Pastor exemplifies the best that immigrants bring to this country and the tragedy of our broken immigration system. He was an honors student, record-holding athlete, and active church member who was arrested in mid-November after a minor traffic accident led police to uncover his undocumented status. He was threatened with deportation to his parents' native Guatemala, a country he left when he was a year old. In mid-December, Pastor was released on "deferred action status," which prevented him from becoming one of the 1,100 people who are deported each day. But Congress failed to agree on broader reform for people in Pastor’s situation through the Dream Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for immigrant youth through earning a college degree or serving in the military -- and is still the next step in fixing an immigration system that tears families apart.

This White House needs prophetic truth-telling and courageous witness, rather than quiet advice, from faith leaders. And the movement that must be built will not be a movement against the president but a movement against Washington and its ways, which have once again sought to extinguish the candle of reform. Our candles must burn even brighter with the hope that comes not from Washington or politics, but from the gospel.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. Portions of this column appeared on the God's Politics blog.

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