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Obama Courted Federal Employees With Letters Before Election

John Gage, president of the 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, requested that Barack Obama write the letters.
John Gage, president of the 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, requested that Barack Obama write the letters. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
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By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008

In wooing federal employee votes on the eve of the election, Barack Obama wrote a series of letters to workers that offer detailed descriptions of how he intends to add muscle to specific government programs, give new power to bureaucrats and roll back some Bush administration policies.

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The letters, sent to employees at seven agencies, describe Obama's intention to scale back on contracts to private firms doing government work, to remove censorship from scientific research, and to champion tougher industry regulation to protect workers and the environment. He made it clear that the Department of Housing and Urban Development would have an enhanced role in restoring public confidence in the housing market, shaken because of the ongoing mortgage crisis.

Using more specifics than he did on the campaign trail, Obama said he would add staff to erase the backlog of Social Security disability claims. He said he would help Transportation Security Administration officers obtain the same bargaining rights and workplace protections as other federal workers. He even expressed a desire to protect the Environmental Protection Agency's library system, which the Bush administration tried to eliminate.

"I asked him to put it in writing, something I could use with my members, and he didn't flinch," said John Gage, president of the 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, who requested that Obama write the letters, which were distributed through the union. "The fact that he's willing to put his name to it is a good sign."

The letters, all but one written Oct. 20, reveal a candidate adeptly tailoring his message to a federal audience and tapping into many workers' dismay at funding cuts and workforce downsizing in the Bush years. Many of Obama's promises would require additional funding, something he acknowledged would be difficult to achieve under the current economic conditions.

Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said the letters were intended to communicate to federal workers his position on their agencies.

In a letter to Labor Department employees, Obama wrote: "I believe that it's time we stopped talking about family values and start pursuing policies that truly value families, such as paid family leave, flexible work schedules, and telework, with the federal government leading by example."

Obama wrote to employees in the departments of Labor, Defense, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs, along with the TSA, the EPA and the Social Security Administration. Defense was the only area in which he did not make promises requiring additional spending, the letters show.

Some worry that Obama may have overpromised, with program changes and worker benefits that would be impossible to achieve. "That strikes me as smart politics," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "We'll soon find out if he can deliver when he has to deliver his first budget."

Obama repeatedly echoed in his correspondence the longstanding lament of federal workers -- that the Bush administration starved their agencies of staff and money to the point where they could not do their jobs.

In his letter to Labor Department employees, Obama said Bush appointees had thwarted the agency's mission of keeping workers safe, especially in mines. "Our mine safety program will have the staffing . . . needed to get the job done," he wrote.

Obama lamented to EPA staffers that Americans' health and the planet have been "jeopardized outright" because of "inadequate funding" and "the failed leadership of the past eight years, despite the strong and ongoing commitment of the career individuals throughout this agency."


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