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Blockbuster: Political Coordination With NEA Initiated By White House

Morgen on September 23, 2009 at 11:27 am

A few weeks ago, a blogger on BigGovernment.com broke the story regarding an inappropriate (if not illegal) conference call between White House staff and representatives and members from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), to solicit “artistic” support for the President’s health reform agenda. The NEA representative who facilitated this call, Yosi Sergant, has since been “re-assigned”. However, according to a story today in the Washington Times, the NEA is claiming that Sergant acted “unilaterally” without authorization from the acting Chairman of the NEA. Furthermore, the White House is also now denying any inappropriate, politically-motivated behavior with regards to this story. However, a document discovered earlier this week and also posted on BigHollywood.com demonstrates beyond a doubt that the coordination with the NEA was orchestrated by the White House itself, with the express purpose of soliciting support for the President’s political agenda.

The White House office which participated in the call recorded by BigGovernment was the Office of Public Engagement headed by Valerie Jarrett, a long-time friend and confidante of the Obama’s from Chicago. The new document demonstrates that this call was only one in a series of politically-motivated activities in support of the President’s agenda, which were coordinated and led directly by the White House Office of Public Engagement (OPE).

The document contains detailed notes from a White House briefing, organized by the OPE, held on May 12, 2009. The purpose of the meeting was as follows:

On May 12th, more than 60 artists and creative organizers engaged in civic participation,community development, education, social justice activism, and philanthropy came together for a White House briefing on Art, Community, Social Justice, National Recovery…

Each of the sponsors of this meeting had been in contact with Yosi Sergant who was then an Associate with the White House Office of Public Liaison (and is now Communications Director ofthe National Endowment for the Arts.) Once we understood that a larger meeting would enable us to access more advisors and policymakers, it made sense to combine forces and invitation lists…

Overall, we came away feeling that there would be room at the table for artists and creative organizers to take part in conversations about relevant policies and programs; and that we were being challenged to come up with promising and attractive ideas about how artists can work for the administration’s agenda and how artists’ work can be integral to national recovery.

In case there is any question whether this meeting was organized by low level White House officials (such as Sergant), here is a list of all White House officials who participated in this meeting:

  • Mike Strautmanis, Chief of Staff for the Office of Public Liaison
  • Buffy Wicks, Deputy Director, Office of Public Liaison
  • Joseph Reinstein, Deputy Social Secretary
  • Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to the President (aka the Arts Czar)
  • Trooper Sanders, Deputy Director of Policy and Projects, Office of the First Lady
  • Mario Garcia Durham, Director of Presenting, National Endowment for the Arts
  • Tina Tchen, Director of Public Liaison

The document goes on to quote/paraphrase directly from the officials above who spoke at this meeting. I encourage you to read the entire document, but here are some key excerpts which demonstrate the overtly political nature of this meeting:

Mike Strautmanis welcomed us warmly, declaring that we have many friends at the Office of Public Liaison (formerly the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs). He explained that the office is the “front door to the White House,” fulfilling and realizing the essence of President Obama’s career, his philosophy of political change, and his presidency…

Mike Strautmanis directed our attention to key people with whom to foster relationships: Kareem Dale, who was appointed to deal with the arts specifically; and Valerie Jarrett, a close confidante and advisor to the First Family, who connects directly to the Oval Office…

Mike Strautmanis described two paths. First, there are formal, set pieces of work such as the healthcare debate, efforts to reduce energy costs and the commitment to community service. In these areas, the administration wants to bring people in informally to advise and offer perspectives and to receive updates on impact. The administration wants to know what’s missing or doesn’t make sense, and will reach out periodically as issues come up.

Second, through Kareem Dale, there is a conduit to the White House and the Obama Administration, to initiate contact and stay in touch via email and phone. The administration has an agenda, but there are things activists know and are involved in that the administration can’t know directly, such as ways to communicate with people and how to motivate them culturally.

Sally Kohn, Center for Community Change, declared that “We love a White House that loves organizers!” Regarding the open-door metaphor, she noted, folks are being invited in to help, but it also takes a movement to create a climate for change, banging down that door. She asked Mike Strautmanis to share what he has learned about how people have been effective in helping tocreating the political space needed for change.

Mike Strautmanis explained that the administration must be comfortable with messiness: real engagement is messy and people need to be comfortable with some conflict and raised voices, a natural part of change and of bringing competing interests into the room. Ground rules for trust are also needed: don’t slam each other in the media from private conversations. Don’t come to the table only to complain, have solutions too. Be willing to demonstrate, be prepared and be willing to compromise with competing interests. He noted that organizers are not always used to political processes. Some are approaching with old tools, projections and biases, but what’s needed is to trust the process of change. Instead of protest signs on the fence, he urged,think about what it means to be inside the fence. He noted that this could also be instructive to the traditional participants in political gamesmanship, who know the system but aren’t yet invested in the process of creating real change.

Tina Tchen said her office is charged by President Obama to resonate with what this group is interested in. She noted that previously in its 50-year history of outreach, the public liaison office had been focused on one-way communication with national organizations that have DC offices, but President Obama wants a two-way street and real public engagement…

She encouraged arts organizations to participate in the Summer of Service program Buffy Wicks mentioned earlier, helping to generate opportunities for people to do more in their communities and hoping they will partner with the White House in this effort. The administration wants to sustain energy from the election process and turn it toward the agenda. She acknowledged that participants’ organizations are facing hard financial choices right now, and that President Obama is engaged in a tough process with the budget, health care reform, green jobs, and education that are necessary to righting the economy in this first year…

There is much more – again read through the whole document. Look, I will leave it to others more qualified to determine whether the White House has crossed any legal barriers in using the Office of Public Engagement to organize directly for support of their legislative/policy agenda. But I don’t think there can be any question as to whether this was a coordinated effort on the part of the White House to reach out to the arts community proactively for political purposes. And by using the NEA, which is a tax payer funded organization, and the resources and prestige of the White House in order to do so, it sure seems to me like a line of propriety has been crossed.

And frankly, I was working on a post related to similar activity on the part of the White House with other community organizing groups when I stumbled across the document I covered here. Which leads me to seriously question whether the sole focus of the Office of Public Engagement is in organizing activity in support of the Administration’s legislative agenda. Perhaps this should come as no surprise given that we have elected an Organizer-in-Chief. But I think it’s well past time for the broader media to wake up and start investigating whether White House staff are abusing the power and privilege of their office.

Update: John sent me a link to this article from March in the New York Times. It further demonstrates the White House intent to leverage the arts community for political purposes.

Bill Ivey, who served as the administration’s transition-team leader for the arts and humanities, said he was encouraged by the appointment [of Kareem Dale to the Office of Public Engagement] and would meet with Mr. Dale next week. “It’s a big step forward in terms of connecting cultural and government with mainstream administration policy,” Mr. Ivey said in an interview on Friday. The White House declined to describe the position in detail, since Mr. Dale’s appointment has yet to be formally announced. Mr. Ivey, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said he expected that the job would mainly involve coordinating the activities of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services “in relation to White House objectives.”

“Objectives” such as health care reform, perhaps? Unbelievable…

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Category: Health & Education, Politics |

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