- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2009

The White House, in a report to be released Monday morning, will make a final argument that its office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has been redeemed from its politics-tainted past.

The office, which President Bush created at the beginning of his administration, has been sullied by criticisms from a former agency head and a former staffer, who charged that the White House had used the office for political reasons.

The report, titled “Innovations in Compassion,” a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, argues that the president’s effort to direct more federal funding to faith-based local groups across the country has transformed thousands of lives.

It lists some impressive numbers: a 30 percent reduction in homelessness, more than 250,000 drug addicts helped, more than 100,000 children of prisoners matched with mentors, and 535,000 underprivileged students given tutoring, to name a few. The report argues that the president’s program is fully or partly responsible for each of these results.

Although the report does not directly address past charges from former deputy director David Kuo, the office has struggled to refocus public attention on its accomplishments since Mr. Kuo went public in 2006 with a book detailing complaints about his time in the White House from 2002 to 2003.

John J. DiIulio Jr., the office’s first director, said the faith-based initiative and the Bush White House in general were driven more by politics than by a focus on substantive achievements.

President-elect Barack Obama, essentially citing Mr. Kuo and Mr. DiIulio’s criticisms, has said “the office never fulfilled its promise.”

The faith-based initiative’s acting director, Jedd Medefind, said in an interview that the office’s efforts to shed its negative image have been “very disappointing.”

The main critiques, he said, “primarily center around the years from 2002 to 2004.”

“Almost nothing that’s been written or said has anything to do with anything that’s happened over the last four yeas. It’s almost like writing about the Iraq war pre-surge,” he said.

Mr. Bush made the faith-based initiative one of the main planks in his campaign platform in 2000, and he apparently intended to make it a central part of his presidency.

“Government has great responsibilities for public safety and public health, for civil rights and common schools. Yet compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government. And some needs and hurts are so deep they will only respond to a mentor’s touch or a pastor’s prayer,” Mr. Bush said in his first inaugural address.

“Church and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws,” he said.

Mr. DiIulio and Mr. Kuo wrote one year ago that this “did not happen.”

“The initiative has not delivered the grants, vouchers, tax incentives and other support for faith-based organizations that the president originally promised,” they wrote in an editorial for the New York Times.

One of the statistics they cited: Only 33,000 children of prisoners had been matched with mentors, well short of the president’s goal of 100,000.

The new White House report, however, says that “with funding and support from the Mentoring Children of Prisoners program, [Faith-Based and Community Organizations] have matched more than 107,000 children of prisoners with caring adult mentors.”

Neither Mr. Kuo nor Mr. DiIulio responded to requests for comment.

Even the president’s supporters, such as former speechwriter Michael Gerson, have said that Mr. Bush’s faith-based initiative has a “mixed record.”

Mr. Gerson, who was an adviser to the president as well, said in his book, “Heroic Conservatism,” that opposition from Republican leadership on Capitol Hill and even within the White House undermined Mr. Bush’s commitment to the faith-based programs.

Despite these shortcomings, Mr. Gerson said, Mr. Bush has begun a trend that he thinks will endure through future administrations.

Indeed, Mr. Obama has said he also will have an office that works to match religious groups with federal funding. But he has said his office’s dealings would not be exempt from federal anti-discrimination law, which some Christian groups fear will force them to hire people outside their religion.

“As I’ve said many times, I believe that change comes not from the top down, but from the bottom up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples and mosques,” Mr. Obama said in July when he announced his plans for the office.

Mr. Obama is giving the office a new name - the Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships - but officials in the Bush White House don’t think his plans look very different from what they’ve been doing.

“I sincerely feel there’s a lot of people who just don’t want to give the president credit for some of the things he’s achieved,” Mr. Medefind said.

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