In recent weeks, the Obama administration has been mired in setbacks and scandals. One of these, at least, has not yet received the attention it deserves–that is, the administration’s effort to enlist artists in support of its policy agenda.
Most likely, you’re generally aware of the story. It was broken by Patrick Courrielche at Big Hollywood. Courrielche received an email invitation from Yosi Sergant of the National Endowment for the Arts to participate in a conference call to discuss President Obama’s “United We Serve initiative.” Courrielche did participate, along with a number of other artists and representatives of arts groups. He found the experience disconcerting, and wrote about the call on Big Hollywood:
Backed by the full weight of President Barack Obama’s call to service and the institutional weight of the NEA, the conference call was billed as an opportunity for those in the art community to inspire service in four key categories, and at the top of the list were “health care” and “energy and environment.” The service was to be attached to the President’s United We Serve campaign, a nationwide federal initiative to make service a way of life for all Americans. …
We were encouraged to bring the same sense of enthusiasm to these “focus areas” as we had brought to Obama’s presidential campaign, and we were encouraged to create art and art initiatives that brought awareness to these issues. Throughout the conversation, we were reminded of our ability as artists and art professionals to “shape the lives” of those around us. The now famous Obama “Hope” poster, created by artist Shepard Fairey and promoted by many of those on the phone call, and will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” song and music video were presented as shining examples of our group’s clear role in the election.
Glenn Beck got on the case–he is riding a remarkable winning streak– and George Will wrote a column on the administration’s apparent effort to politicize the NEA.
In the meantime, the NEA first admitted that it had participated in the conference call, but denied that it had sent out the invitations for the call. That claim was obviously false; here is the email from Yosi Sergant, Director of the NEA’s Office of Communications, inviting artists to participate. He writes:
Now is the time for us to answer [President Obama's] call. It is time for us as a group of artists, producers, promoters, organizers, influencers, marketers, tastemakers, leaders or just plain, cool people to join together…and celebrate how the arts can be used for a positive change!
I’m not sure whether the NEA has ever retracted its false claim that it didn’t organize the call, but it announced that it was reassigning Sergant–to what, we don’t know–and the affair seemingly came to an end, although Patrick Courrielche has continued to post new information at Big Hollywood.
Much remains to be said about this incident and what it tells us about the Obama administration. Attention has centered on the role played by the NEA; understandably so, given that agency’s past scandals. But the NEA was not the only organizer of the conference call. Sergant’s email said that the conference call was sponsored by “the United We Serve team, in collaboration with the White House Office of Public Engagement and the National Endowment for the Arts.” So the White House was specifically involved in the effort.
You’ve probably never heard of the White House Office of Public Engagement. It is the former Office of Public Liaison, renamed by the Obama administration. Its stated mission is:
to serve as the front door to the White House through which ordinary Americans can participate and inform the work of the President. … OPE will help build relationships with Americans by increasing their meaningful engagement with the federal government. Serving as the front door to the White House, OPE will allow ordinary Americans to offer their stories and ideas regarding issues that concern them and share their views on important topics such as health care, energy and education.
The Office of Public Engagement is headed by Obama’s confidante Valerie Jarrett, which suggests that it has more clout, and more of the President’s interest, than one would otherwise assume.
The Office’s Deputy Director is Buffy Wicks. Ms. Wicks is a professional political organizer:
Wicks has a long history in grassroots organizing and civic engagement. Most recently she was the Director of the Renew America Together effort, the call to service issued by then President-elect Obama. She also served on the Obama for America campaign in a variety of roles, including California Field Director and Missouri State Director, and helped develop the national grassroots field strategy. She has also worked in the labor movement, fighting for better health care and wages for disenfranchised workers.
It was Buffy Wicks who represented the White House on the August 10 call in which Patrick Courrielche participated. Her role on the call was pivotal. If you read the full transcript of the conference call, it is striking that some of those who speak seem to take seriously the idea that the artists on the call are being solicited to promote volunteerism, or “service.” It is actually the White House’s representative who speaks most bluntly about what the call’s sponsors have in mind. Near the beginning of the call, Ms. Wicks said:
MS. WICKS: I’m honored to be on the call, and I just, you know, it’s been a long road I know for a lot of us, and we’re really just beginning. I, first of all, want to thank everyone for being on the call and really just a deep, deep appreciation for all the work that you all put into the campaign for the two plus years that we all worked together. I was the field director in California so I hear my L.A. peeps out there, so it’s exciting to hear those voices.
And, you know, we won and that’s exciting, and now we have to take all that energy and make it really meaningful. I’m in the White House now and what I’ve learned over these first — we just had our 200 mark on Saturday, which sounds crazy, is that it’s — that change does not come easy and, you know, when then Candidate Obama would say that it’s like, yeah, I know change doesn’t come easy, but then now that I’m actually in the White House and working towards furthering this agenda, this very aggressive agenda, I’m really realizing that, and I’m also appreciative of the way in which we did win and the strategy that the campaign shows, which is really to engage people at a local level and to engage them in the process, because we need them and we need you, and we’re going to need your help, and we’re going to come at you with some specific asks here.
But we know that you guys are ready for it and eager to participate, so one we want to thank you, and two, I hope you guys are ready. So I’m at the Office of Public Engagement here at the White House.
And as part of my role here is working on service, and so when we were thinking about how do we take a lot of this energy that’s out there, how do we translate folks who have just been engaged in electoral politics and engage them in really the process of governing, of being part of this administration in a little bit of a different way because politics is one thing and governing is something totally separate, we really saw service as the platform by which we can do that.
What we realize was that the only way we’re really going to have change is if all of us are working together collaboratively in really creating sort of these sustained relationships that we can all build on and that it’s really going to take all of us to be strong to deal with a lot of the issues that we’re facing. …
So we focus on the four main areas: One is health care. Obviously, that’s a big issue. … Second was energy and environment. And so we worked a lot with the Department of Interior. I know I’m throwing a lot of government stuff at you guys, so bear with me. It’s the world we live in now. We’re actually running the government.
We need your guys’s help to promote this. We know that you all have channels and ability to get the message out far greater than we do here and the president’s put out the call. And that’s who we have to push this forward, and he speaks to a lot of people, so does our First Lady and so do our cabinet secretaries. But we know that you all are very powerful voices of change in your own right, and we’re looking to you for your help on that.
Ms. Wicks was on the call as the official representative of the White House, and it’s hard to read her comments as anything but a call for artists and arts groups to engage in a partisan campaign on behalf of the Obama administration’s policy agenda. That’s her “ask,” as she puts it in the language of Washington lobbyists. She goes so far as to say that she wants to engage her listeners–”powerful voices for change in your own right”–”in really the process of governing, of being part of this administration.”
This extraordinary performance prompts several observations.
First, if Yosi Sergant was “reassigned” for sending out the email, how about Ms. Wicks? The NEA’s reassignment of Sergant was an acknowledgement that the effort by a government agency to enlist artists in support of a partisan agenda was improper. The NEA’s mild disciplinary action suggests that the call was the action of a relatively low-level employee who got carried away. But it wasn’t. It was sponsored by the White House and was led by the deputy to one of President Obama’s closest friends and advisers. This was no marginal, rogue operation. It was, rather, an element of Barack Obama’s political strategy.
Second, the operation may well have been illegal. Public funds are not supposed to be expended to support partisan projects. Beyond that, it is unconstitutional to grant or deny federal funds on the basis of the recipient’s political actions or opinions. National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley. The NEA is the single largest funder of the arts, and several participants in the August 10 conference call had recently received NEA checks. It would have been entirely reasonable for those on the phone call to conclude that future NEA funding could be influenced by their willingness to play ball with the Obama administration’s political agenda. Moreover, the Hatch Act limits the ability of federal employees to engage in partisan politics. Sergant’s sending of the email invitation to artists and arts groups, using his government email account, could be considered a bright line violation of the act, as could his apparent solicitation of political support from any arts group that had an application for funding pending before the NEA. Likewise, Ms. Wicks’ participation in the call would appear to be illegal if she was “on duty” and if the call was deemed political in nature.
It would take a thorough knowledge of the facts and more legal research than I’ve had time for to draw a conclusion as to whether the White House or NEA violated the law in connection with the artist outreach, but at a minimum an investigation is in order.
Third, it is clear that some of the participants on the call viewed it as a call to support the administration’s political agenda. Thus, a few days after the phone call Rock the Vote, an ostensibly non-partisan organization, announced a “health care design contest.” The announcement was couched in highly partisan terms:
We can’t stand by and listen to lies and deceit coming from those who are against reforming a broken system…We need designs that tell the country YES WE CARE! Young people demand health care now.
You can see some of the designs that were submitted–as a direct result, apparently, of the White House’s organizing effort–here. These are a few samples:
That last one is nicely Orwellian.
One final point: note how Buffy Wicks’ solicitation of artists to join in a propaganda campaign to sway public opinion in favor of President Obama’s policies represents the precise opposite of the supposed mission of the agency for which she works, “to allow ordinary Americans to offer their stories and ideas regarding issues that concern them and share their views on important topics.” Talk about Astroturf! What is supposed to be a bottom-up opportunity for average Americans to be heard is turned into a top-down effort to use the powers of the federal government to organize propaganda in support of the administration’s policies.
In short, we have by no means gotten to the bottom of the NEA story. Further investigation is in order.
UPDATE: Patrick Courrielche has more here.