Obama Staffer Says Make Neighbor's Struggles Real

March 26, 2009

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

March 23, 2009 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)


People of faith have a tremendous responsibility to keep the struggles of their neighbors' daily lives in front of the president, Senate and House of Representatives.


Members of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society heard that message repeatedly as they visited legislators from their states and districts during their March 18-22 spring meeting in Washington.


A member of President Barack Obama's administration pleaded with the board members to remain engaged with their communities and the Oval Office.


"We need your help to keep our voices from being drowned out by a culture that has been successful in thinking a certain way," said Michael Strautmanis, chief of staff to Valerie Jarrett, the assistant to the president for intergovernmental relations and public liaison.


A Chicago native, Strautmanis started his career as a paralegal in Michelle Obama's law firm. He served during the Clinton administration, was legislative director to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and worked for the American Association for Justice.


A call to open doors

 

Strautmanis addressed the board during lunch on March 20. He arrived after an overnight flight with Obama, who went to California to hold two town hall meetings.


"Not one person talked about AIG - that's all they are talking about here," he said. "They talked about health care, about teachers being laid off, about kids wanting to go to college. It reminded me of our responsibility to bring those voices to Washington D.C."


He asked board members to "open your doors and windows" and engage with neighbors and friends. He said the president is motivated by his faith and he knows people are hurting because of the economic crisis.

 

In an interview after the luncheon address, Strautmanis said United Methodists can "lift us up during this enormously challenging time."


He shared that Obama makes it a point to read 10 letters sent to him from across the nation every night before he goes to bed. "He shares a lot of those letters with us," he said. "It is a challenging time, but what keeps us going is thinking about the people we have met over the past two years.


"United Methodists have a long history of engaging in public policy. We want to reach out to them and tell them three things: 'Keep it up, we need you, and we are your partners.'"


Messages of love


At the end of the speech, Bishop Jose Quipungo, Angola, Africa, rose to speak to Strautmanis and had a message for him to take back to his boss.

 

"Obama is our president too. We in Angola are confident in his government and know it is not easy to guide this great country," he said. "We hope Obama will think about the children and women in Angola. Your work is important for all of us."


"As the president engages in the world, he sees things from a grassroots level and no more than in Africa," Strautmanis replied.


"As the son and grandson of the continent, he has no patience for corruption. He has tough messages of love and challenges all of us."


* Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.