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Keep up the pressure on the president (even if you’re sick of politics)

a photo of Rick ClaypoolPeople who are engaged in saving our country from the corporate takeover of our democracy have mixed (and strong) feelings about our recently re-elected president, Barack Obama, judging from some of the replies I received to the latest emails I sent to Public Citizen’s grassroots activists.

The email I sent was about Public Citizen’s campaign encouraging President Obama to refuse offers of corporate money to help pay for his inauguration in January, just as he refused corporate money for his first inauguration. The campaign was launched after The Wall Street Journal reported that some advisors close to the Obama campaign were considering accepting corporate money for the January 21, 2013 event, which coincidentally falls on the three-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s atrocious ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Interestingly, several of the emails I received in response fell into two camps – those who think we should trust that the president will stand up and do the right thing on his own, and those who think the president will inevitably betray the general public to corporate interests, no matter what anyone says. Email responders in both camps used these reasons to abstain from participating in the petition.

Now, I don’t want to exaggerate the significance of these emails. After all, I received probably only a dozen or so like this, which, compared to the 30,576 (and counting!) activists who have signed the petition so far, isn’t exactly statistically significant.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that large segments of the public agree with these activism abstainers. With a long, ugly election behind us, lots of people are probably looking for reasons to tune out of politics right now. I can sympathize with those who are sick of trying to force Washington to do what’s right. So it’s all the more important that I explain why I think disengaging from the political process is the wrong thing to do.

In response to both camps of activism abstainers, I say this: We just can’t afford to ignore what’s going on in Washington. Not for one month, not for one week – not even for one day. As a watchdog organization, it’s Public Citizen’s responsibility to inform our members and supporters about opportunities to push our country’s elected leaders to do what’s right for all Americans, and to resist attempts to sacrifice the public interest to private profit.

Unlike election campaigns, we never stop. The reason why we never stop is simple: If we disengage from the political process, more corporate lobbyists and other special interests can step in and fill the vacuum. No matter what, these lobbyists will be trying to convince the president, Congress and our state lawmakers that what’s best for the corporate interests they represent is what’s best for the public in general. It might seem obvious, but it’s worth saying: It’s always much likelier that these lobbyists will get what they want if no one is challenging what they say.

In order for the president (and other elected lawmakers) to carry out the will of the people, the people must push the president in the direction they want him to go. As a newly elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1932 to fighters for progress when they presented him with a list of their priorities for him: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

I don’t say this as a way to excuse lawmakers for when they make decisions that go against the public interest. I say it as a reminder that civic engagement doesn’t begin and end at the ballot box. The way I see it, believing one’s only responsibility as a citizen is to vote is like believing a manager’s only responsibility as a supervisor is to hire and fire. If you’ve got workers doing a job for you, you should probably let those workers know what you expect of them.

Our president, and our Congress, work for us. Make sure they know what you want them to do. Don’t disengage, and don’t let them forget it.

Let the president and your members of Congress know what you expect of them. To get involved with Public Citizen’s current campaigns, visit citizen.org/action.

Rick Claypool is Online Director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. Follow him on Twitter at @CitizenRick.