President Barack Obama addressed an enthusiastic crowd of more than 2,000 supporters in Boone, Iowa, Monday, but even among the most diehard of fans it wasn’t hard to find a critic.
Krishna Prabhu, a recent college graduate from Ames, Iowa, stood just over the president’s left shoulder throughout his remarks at the Herman Park pavilion. A few minutes after Obama took the stage, Prabhu quietly unfolded a regular piece of white printer paper with the words “FUND PEPFAR” printed on it in big black letters. He held it silently for about five minutes in full view of the audience and all the television cameras aimed at the president’s remarks, and then just as quietly, he refolded the paper and put it away.
PEPFAR – or the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief – was started by President George W. Bush in 2003 and is widely viewed as one of the great successes of his administration. The program was renewed by Congress in 2008 with a $48 billion commitment for fiscal years 2009 to 2013.
But some critics argue that after taking into account inflation in Africa and increased global demand for treatment, funding has effectively flat lined or even decreased under Obama. Prabhu is one of those critics.
“My message was, look if you’re going to promise an AIDS-free generation you’ve got to at least maintain funding because there are millions of people who still need treatment,” Prabhu told CNN after the event. “The U.S. is one of the most generous donors and so a cut like that especially in an economic crisis can be devastating in terms of human health.”
Prabhu is an otherwise vocal supporter of the president. He caucused for Obama as a young college student in 2008 and has volunteered for his campaign in Iowa since graduating from Harvard last spring. Set to begin medical school in the fall, Prabhu became passionate about global health after taking a service trip to Uganda and seeing entire communities ravaged by AIDS.
His quiet protest at Monday’s event was meant as a harmless way to get the “wonks” in the Obama Administration to pay more attention to the importance of funding PEPFAR, Prabhu said, but not to harm the president’s chances in this key swing state.
“There’s no question that between the two sides I choose President Obama, but it is hard to kind of nuance a message and hold the president accountable for his promises,” Prabhu said. “He came into office promising huge increases in AIDS funding, about $50 billion over five years and it’s just been met with flatlining and now actual cuts. So in terms of fulfilling a promise and maintaining funding that a lot of vulnerable people are depending on he hasn’t done his job.”
Monday’s demonstration was “kind of tame” for Prabhu, who said he has protested much more vocally at political rallies in the past. But as a supporter of the president, he didn’t want to cause too big of a scene.
“[The campaign] kind of told me to take it down,” Prabhu said, referring to his sign. “And I did because I didn’t want to cause a ruckus. At the end of the day, [Obama's] vulnerable in Iowa and you don’t want to mess anything up.”