Augenstein and Carel: Obama’s unfulfilled promise

On Saturday, about a dozen Yalies joined forces with Harvard students in Bridgeport; surprisingly enough, they were coming together to protest, of all things, an Obama rally. Why would Yale and Harvard undergraduates and School of Public Health students protest against an administration which, by and large, we are hoping will be re-elected in two years? The concern is simple, but of enormous import: This is a pivotal political moment during the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. The U.S. has the opportunity to powerfully fight the disease, both through its own contributions and by setting the bar high for other countries to follow. However, since assuming the presidency, President Obama has neglected the pandemic. In such a crucial area, he has failed to live up to the promises he made during his 2008 campaign.

Candidate Obama promised to dedicate $50 billion by 2013 to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), including $1 billion in new money each year. Yet over the past two years, President Obama has fallen far short of what he pledged, only increasing spending on global AIDS relief in increments that have not even kept up with inflation.

This alarming shortfall in America’s contribution has enormous implications. AIDS is a treatable condition with a relatively inexpensive treatment. Yet ten million patients in developing countries still lack access to these lifesaving medications. According to a recent Lancet study, if funding levels remain flat, an additional 14 million people will become infected with HIV in the next 20 years and seven million people will die from AIDS.

Increased funding for international AIDS treatment has other far-reaching benefits. Studies show that antiretroviral drugs reduce HIV transmission by 92 percent, making it the single most effective form of prevention as well as treatment. Furthermore, investing in the infrastructure required to combat AIDS has had a profoundly positive effect on global health as a whole, improving care systems, drug-delivery networks and basic primary health services.

But Obama responded on Saturday not by taking responsibility for his failure to address the pandemic but rather by arguing, cynically, that Republicans would do worse. As New York Magazine wrote in their coverage of the protest, Obama’s “advice that AIDS funding advocates go bother ‘the other side,’ who aren’t the president … doesn’t sound very effective.” Deflecting blame and trying to turn global AIDS funding into a partisan issue — especially after campaigning so vehemently about crossing the aisle — is deeply disappointing. Would Republicans really do worse? PEPFAR was a Republican creation of President Bush. And given Obama’s inaction, the question is irrelevant; the president has yet to even ask Congress to fund at the levels he promised.

Obama’s politicized response only reaffirms our larger frustration with the president, for shirking his word and his accountability. It is Obama who is now calling the shots, and it is his leadership on HIV/AIDS that we are all seeking.

To be clear, our protest was in no way an effort to dethrone Obama or the Democratic Party, especially so close to elections; we support him in general. But on global HIV/AIDS funding, Obama has dropped the ball. Interrupting his speech on Saturday was a last resort to reach Obama’s ear after so many other attempts by AIDS activists have been ignored — letters from medical school deans across the country, petitions sent to the White House, meetings of AIDS advocacy groups with White House officials, and numerous editorials, including one in the New York Times penned by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Many continue to claim that flat-lining AIDS funding was the best Obama could do given the global financial crisis. Yet compared to the nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill and the approximately $3.6 billion that the U.S. spends each month in Afghanistan, it is shameful that our government cannot muster up a $1 billion a year increase for a pandemic that has, single-handedly, cut the life expectancy of sub-Saharan Africans by a quarter.

As Yalies committed to global health and poverty reduction, it is our responsibility to stand up and hold our government accountable for this appalling shortcoming. Many of us have served in communities around the globe and have witnessed, first-hand, the extent to which preventable and treatable diseases can destroy families, undermine economies and steal people’s ability to lead dignified lives. We must do everything in our power to reshape the national dialogue on this issue and push Obama to live up to his promises, promises which could truly shape the future of AIDS.

President Obama, we implore you to follow through on your commitment and be the leader for which we all hoped. We want you to be remembered not as the partisan president who let the pandemic slip out of our grasp, but as the world leader who brought it to a halt.

Jared Augenstein is a first-year student in the School of Public Health. David Carel is a sophomore in Pierson College.


  • nycdem

    Shame on you both. Single issue politics at its worst. Enjoy your new republican overloards. I’m sure they’ll be real sympathetic to your cause. Shame on you for interrupting a rally like spoiled children. thanks a lot, idiots.

  • nedem

    Great work! Citizens must hold their leaders accountable. Millions of lives are at stake, and it is great to see students pushing him to keep promises that he presented as “moral obligations.” Such a small protest seems unlikely to sway midterms, especially 3 days before elections, but it certainly seemed to get the attention of the President (the man with the power to present PEPFAR budgets)– something less-agitating measures have failed to do.

  • River Tam

    > Shame on you both. Single issue politics at its worst. Enjoy your new republican overloards.

    Why do you assume that the protesters are Democrats?

  • nedem

    From the article: “To be clear, our protest was in no way an effort to dethrone Obama or the Democratic Party, especially so close to elections; we support him in general.”

  • kayteeriek

    Obama and Congress made a promise to fund global AIDS programs, and they must be held accountable. Unless we hold their feet to the fire, they will never provide funding to save the lives of millions of people worldwide who will die without medicine. Congratulations on your stellar action! We need more of this to happen. Join up w/ students who care about fighting AIDS at

  • RexMottram08

    Our gov’t runs a deficit. Any AIDS funding must be BORROWED.

    I didn’t know charities were allowed to leverage themselves like investment banks?

  • redandblue

    This issue is beyond partisan politics.

    I’d take acting like a spoiled brat over talking down to people who did nothing but exercise a constitutional right.

    If one is happy to mindlessly agree with their party’s politicians on either side of the aisle and think them beyond reproach…well I think that is perhaps the bigger problem.

  • Gregg Gonsalves

    As one of the demonstrators on Saturday, as a Yale College student, as a person living with HIV/AIDS, and as an Obama supporter, I saw nothing wrong what we did. The President is getting bad advice on global health and has made bad decisions. Our colleagues in DC have tried all other forms of appeal to the Administration and they continue to move away from supporting scale-up of AIDS treatment in Africa, something that up until just recently had iron-clad bipartisan support and has saved the lives of millions of men, women and children around the world. We won’t affect the outcome of the elections tomorrow–there are much larger forces at work, which will determine the Democrats’ and Republicans’ fates. What we did get is the President’s attention–perhaps now he will intervene and do the right thing. Being a good Democrat isn’t about marching-in lock-step or offering up uncritical devotion. All of us in Bridgeport on Saturday, voted, worked for, or gave money to the President during his campaign and will support him again, but he needs to show leadership on global AIDS and live up to the promises he made to us.

  • Jaymin

    This column justifies the actions of the protesters in three ways:

    1) Insisting that they are holding politicians accountable for their promises.

    Well, the president made many promises, one of which was to contain spending. By scaling back his promise to fund Global AID with $50 billion, the president is not acting maliciously disingenuous, he’s outlining priorities, showing restraint, and making tough choices. We should applaud a man who has the integrity to admit that he was wrong to promise something that he didn’t have the money to pay for.

    2) Claiming that $50 billion is tiny compared to the stimulus.

    That’s really flawed logic. A giant deficit is not a license to keep spending profusely. It’s quite the opposite.

    3) That AIDS is an important issue.

    Sure it’s an important issue, but from the perspective of the US federal government, it’s not the most pressing one, though it sounds kinda mean to admit so. We’re in a recession and are running trillion-dollar deficits; at this point the only additional spending that is justified is that which directly addresses this financial situation. Once we return to to surplus years, I’m sure the president will be happy to listen.