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Memos to President Obama

January 15, 2009
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Joel L. Naroff
EDITOR'S NOTE: On the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration, the Exponent solicited local Jews to provide unsolicited advice to the president-elect, focusing on their areas of expertise or activism. We look forward to ongoing debate over policy issues as the Obama presidency unfolds. If you wish to submit your own "Memo to Obama" for consideration in future issues, e-mail maximum 175 words to: letters@ jewishexponent. com.
 
ECONOMY
The economy has not been in this poor shape in 80 years.
 
The collapsing housing market crippled the financial sector. The loss of wealth from falling home and stock prices caused consumer confidence to collapse, and reduced spending dramatically. Businesses reacted by massively cutting jobs.

You cannot address all the economic issues we face at once.

I believe your greatest immediate problem is confidence. The proposed stimulus plan is needed without delay. The government must not only jump-start demand, but also must reverse the negative psychology by showing it can act. While stabilizing housing would resolve the root cause of the economic slump, it cannot be done quickly or easily.

It is confidence that is critical. Once people begin believing that the economic problems will be solved, then spending will pick up, starting the recovery.

Government cannot solve all the problems that we face. But it can create an environment of confidence where both businesses and households look toward the future with hope instead of fear.

Joel L. Naroff is the chief economist of TD Bank and president of Naroff Economic Advisors.


ENVIRONMENT
It's one Humpty Dumpty of a world you've inherited, having fallen apart before your very first day. But fear not, it's getting worse.
 
While everyone focuses on Wall Street, the four horsemen of ecological doom are quickly bearing down upon us. Global warming, water scarcity, the extinction crisis and overpopulation will quickly conspire to really test economic and political systems, for you can't build a strong economy on a collapsing world. It's the ecology, stupid, but you're smart enough to see this coming.


So what's a new president to do?

You already get that the emerging green-collar economy is one road out of our economic hell, and feeds several birds with the same crumb, cooling the planet while siphoning funds from petrodictators. But make sure your jobs program really practices tikkun olam, abandons pork, and is eco-kosher; we can't build any more bridges to nowhere that waste money and wreak ecological havoc.

Reduce CO2 emissions. Push Detroit to build 100-mpg cars. Pull the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off the table. Abandon suburbia and reinvigorate energy-efficient cities.

Forget nukes: there is no solution to radioactivity. Preserve biological diversity in arks of wilderness areas. Read Thomas Friedman religiously.

Do this, and you will go down as the greenest president ever (which, sadly, is surprisingly easy).

Mike Weilbacher, an environmental educator, is the executive director of the Lower Merion Conservancy.


ENERGY INDEPENDENCE
Energy independence for America is a critical issue that is inextricably intertwined with our economic growth and foreign-policy objectives. We need a market-based approach that will lead us to workable alternatives to petroleum use that will not repeat the expensive mistakes of government-mandated solutions.

Since it appears that we will be a petroleum-based economy for some time to come, we must wean ourselves away from dependence on foreign sources of energy who are not our friends. We must increase our use of nuclear power, clean coal, domestic and off-shore exploration, alternative fuels, and use energy more efficiently.

We can defeat radical Islamists, who are funded by petro-dollars; secure Israel's future; raise the prospects for peace in the Middle East; and chart a foreign-policy course that is not beholden to nations like Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, which do not share our values, or to unstable sources like Nigeria, for our energy needs.

Your dream of job creation will be enhanced by enabling and unleashing America's ability to seek and develop its own energy resources.

I urge you to consider this as a priority as you take office.

Scott Feigelstein is the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition Pennsylvania/South New Jersey region.


EDUCATION
In 1950, unskilled workers made up 73 percent of the American labor force. By 2004, only 24 percent were unskilled.

The trend is clear: To compete in today's global economy, the U.S. must have a highly skilled workforce.

Seven years ago, a bipartisan coalition in Washington enacted the "No Child Left Behind" act, which requires every state to measure the basic reading and math skills of their public-school students.

NCLB-mandated tests do not solve the problems of America's public schools, but they do force us to get real about the magnitude of those problems. What we now need is a serious national conversation about what to do to close the achievement gap that NCLB testing has revealed.

Do our schools need more money? Yes, especially our large urban school districts, where one out of every seven students goes to school. More money, spent wisely, does make a difference. With adequate resources and the right supports, every one of our children can learn.

Here in Philadelphia, we have shown that urban public schools can get better with increased funding, dedicated teachers, a more diverse set of school choice options, and strong leadership.

In 2002, just 24 percent of our students were at grade level in reading and 20 percent in math.

Today, 45 percent are at grade level in reading, and 49 percent in math. Not good enough, but certainly better.

Not coincidentally, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania funding for Philadelphia's public schools grew by an average 8 percent a year from 2002 to 2008, and local funding by 6 percent a year.

But now, an economic crisis is devastating state and local revenues. To sustain and accelerate the reform of America's public schools, state and local governments are going to need more and different help from the federal government. In the next phase of education reform, Washington needs to invest, not just test.


As a college freshman, I'm distressed about the financial sacrifices Americans have to make to pay for higher education for our top-notch education system.

Michael Masch is the chief business officer of the School District of Philadelphia.



COLLEGE TUITION

As a college freshman, I'm distressed about the financial sacrifices Americans have to make to pay for higher education for our top-notch education system.

One of the issues that attracted me to your campaign was your commitment to improving education, and making college more accessible and affordable.

You promised college scholarships for students who'd commit to four years of teaching post-graduation, thus enticing young and vibrant teachers to the education field. You also proposed tax credits for college tuition and fees, expenses that today are becoming even less affordable for regular Americans.

I implore you to keep to these promises and to prioritize college affordability during your presidential term.

America prides itself on its supreme system of higher education; please help to make that system affordable to everyone.


Rachel Baker is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, where she served as the Jewish student liaison to the Obama campaign.
 
TAX EDUCATIONAL CREDITS
You have attempted to present yourself as someone who seeks practical results and is open to ideas that aren't naturally yours.

In fact, you told The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in February, with reference to school vouchers: "I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn."

Its clear advantages notwithstanding, school vouchers are highly controversial. What should not be are tax education credits.

Here's why:

· Tax education credits are constitutional, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1983.

· No government money goes to schools. They are personal or corporate funds that pay for tutoring, books, educational software, etc., and may also pay for a portion of private tuition.

· Tax credits do not harm public schools. On the contrary, they enable parents access to materials and services, like SAT prep courses, they would not otherwise necessarily receive.

· No money is taken away from public schools. The opposite is true. More money goes toward education, but without bureaucratic hoops.

· Tax credits are efficient, and allow companies and parents to choose and directly spend the money.

· Everyone benefits. Parents choose what's best for their children. Schools can receive funding by partnering with businesses. Companies and parents get tax credits, and most importantly students receive better education and services.

Rabbi Avraham J. Shmidman is the religious leader of Lower Merion Synagogue.

FOREIGN AID

An Arab-Israeli peace is only possible if Palestinian society is transformed into one that genuinely supports peace with Israel. Without that, no amount of American aid or Israeli concessions will produce peace.

Therefore, American support for the Palestinian Authority -- $700 million a year -- must be conditional on Palestinian fulfillment of their written agreements from Oslo to the road map to end the incitement to hatred and murder of Jews in the P.A.-controlled media, mosques, schools and youth camps; arrest terrorists; and dismantle terror groups.

Islamist terror is a threat to societies everywhere, and we must support Israel's efforts to defeat Hamas and the other jihadist terror groups. Therefore, in Gaza, a mere cease-fire would be a mistake.

America must assist Israel in rendering Hamas ineffective as a fighting force that can terrorize southern Israel.

A cease-fire, in contrast, offers only a temporary respite and ensures deferring peace, entrenching Hamas further and strengthening Islamist groups everywhere.

Egypt has significant responsibility for the current conflict by permitting the smuggling of weaponry from Iran and Syria through Egypt into Gaza.

Further American aid to Egypt should be conditional on Egypt stopping the trafficking of arms and terrorists into Gaza.

Morton A. Klein is the national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

PURSUING PEACE

With war devastating Gaza and southern Israel, strong American leadership is desperately needed to bring Israelis and Palestinians back from the brink.

Prior to the outbreak of war, you promised to make Israeli/Palestinian peacemaking an urgent priority for your administration.

Your strong voice is needed now, calling for an immediate cease-fire that ends violence by all sides and facilitates the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

While you will no doubt hear protestations from a minority of the Jewish community who reflexively oppose any move toward compromise, the overwhelming majority of American Jews will strongly back your commitment to active diplomatic engagement.

By more than two-to-one, American Jews support your call to play an active role in helping the parties resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and support the administration exerting pressure on both the Israelis and Arabs to make the compromises necessary to achieve peace.

Several weeks ago, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom -- America's largest grass-roots, pro-Israel, pro-peace organization -- presented your transition team with the names of nearly 1,000 rabbis pledging "to mobilize our people behind your leadership for a mutually acceptable, two-state solution."

President Obama -- the U.S. Jewish community stands ready to work with you to bring a lasting and durable peace to Israelis and Palestinians.

Steve Masters is the national president of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace.

DARFUR

Among the myriad reasons so many of us found your candidacy so appealing was our belief that due to your background and expansive view of international politics, we would now have a president with credibility and influence in what used to be referred to as the "Third World."

After eight years of a more unilateral U.S. approach to the rest of the world, there are welcome indications that you have a well-spring of trust around the world that, if used wisely and forcefully, can help bring about progress toward, if not lasting peace, then at least accommodation, between Israel and much of the Islamic world.

We fervently hope that you will also use this influence to help end the genocide in Darfur. While President Bush has said all the right things about this slaughter, too often what the people of Darfur received were words but little real help. Often, African and Muslim nations paid lip service or worse regarding this genocide.

You can use both a financial carrot and a diplomatic stick to make it clear that America will not stand by for more years of genocide. The European Union, the African Union and the United Nations must be encouraged to employ sanctions, rewards and even armed intervention if all else fails.

We also ask that your administration strongly support efforts by the International Criminal Court to bring Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to justice.

Morality has not been the long suit of many of these nations. We hope and pray that you will be just the leader who reminds the world what our obligations are to one another.

Burt Siegel recently retired as the director of community relations of the Jewish Federation. He is a member of the Darfur Alert Coalition of Philadelphia.

SENIORS

I was deeply moved by the way your campaign excited and mobilized legions of volunteers to break through apathy and discouragement and to make a difference.

Alongside young adults who left jobs and school for months on end to travel across the country to work for your election were equal numbers of people in their 60s, 70s and 80s investing endless hours making phone calls, knocking on doors and staffing field offices.

Old and young alike contributed time, money, creativity and networks. I will never forget the 90-year-old woman I met at a campaign office. She had come from the rehabilitation facility, where she was recovering from a fall, to organize an Obama house party. She, too, was determined to do whatever she could.

As you implement your vision for repairing our broken society, I hope that you will call on all of us to invest our talents, time, skills, vision and connections toward the common good.

In particular, as you usher in a new era of community service, I hope you will call on our elders. They have precious and irreplaceable wisdom, skill and passion. If we tap them, they will help our nation to recover and thrive.

Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman is the director of Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She was a co-chair of Rabbis for Obama.

RECONCILIATION

As Jews who know that our country is measured by how we treat the most vulnerable among us, we look forward to partnering with you to maximize our human resources to respond to the urgent needs of our citizens.

The stimulus package that we need now is not only financial, but a stimulus of spirit: opening our hearts to one another across boundaries and differences. The hopes and dreams that unite us are much more powerful than the ideologies that divide us.

Today, millions of Americans stand ready to work with you to rebuild our battered country by addressing shattered trust and beginning to reconstruct the relationships that are at the core of our democracy.

Our tradition teaches that serving the community is holy work. May you be blessed with discernment and wise counsel as you go forth.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is the director of the Pennsylvania Council of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Federation of Reform Synagogues of Greater Philadelphia.

VALUES

There will be good and plentiful sources from which you can draw ideas for specific policy initiatives regarding both domestic and foreign issues.

Nonetheless, I venture to speak from the particularity of the religious tradition that I represent to suggest all policy is ultimately futile if not guided by attention to those issues that undergird policy.

I believe there are two such issues: the nature of community and the scourge of violence. I will share with you two teachings from the Talmud that I believe would serve our nation well if taken to heart.

We learn that "every citizen is responsible for every other citizen," and we learn that "one who destroys a life destroys a world while one who saves a life saves a world."

To the extent that you as president can focus the attention of our fellow citizens on these two values, the various policy decisions that you and the Congress will make will contribute to a vital nation.

Rabbi Ira F. Stone is the religious leader of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City. 


 

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