Obama Delivers More Pretty Words, Ugly Inaction on Money in Politics

Obama said he couldn't change the current campaign finance system on his own. But yes he could.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 12:  President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill January 12, 2016 in Washington, D.C.  In his final State of the Union, President Obama reflected on the past seven years in office and spoke on topics including climate change, gun control, immigration and income inequality. (Photo by Evan Vucci - Pool/Getty Images)
Photo: Evan Vucci/Pool-Getty Images

Near the end of President Obama’s final State of the Union address, he eloquently called for Americans to take back the U.S. political system from big money:

“We the People.”

Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people, not just some. Words that insist we rise and fall together, that that’s how we might perfect our union. …

Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.

Too many Americans feel that way right now. …

I believe we’ve got to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.

And if our existing approach to campaign finance reform can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution, because it’s a problem. And most of you don’t like raising money. I know. I’ve done it. …

But I can’t do these things on my own.

What Obama did not mention was this: He in fact can immediately “reduce the influence of hidden interests” on his own, without Congress or the Supreme Court, by issuing an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose any “dark money” contributions to politically active nonprofits.

Such nonprofits currently spend hundreds of millions of dollars per election, and do not have to disclose their donors. An executive order from Obama wouldn’t shine a light on all corporate dark money, since not every corporation receives federal contracts, but most of the biggest do, including over 70 of the Fortune 100.

Obama has previously used his power over contractors to require them them to pay workers at least $10.10 an hour, and forbid them from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

What made Obama’s soliloquy especially maddening was his suggestion that big money has overwhelmed politics because because Americans just aren’t trying hard enough:

Changes in our political process — in not just who gets elected, but how they get elected — that will only happen when the American people demand it. It depends on you. That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people.

In fact, U.S. citizens have demanded “changes in our political process.” Activists delivered over 1 million signatures to the White House telling Obama to sign an executive order on dark money. A similar petition set up via the White House website’s system has passed the 100,000 signatory threshold requiring a response (which the Obama administration has yet to produce). Twenty-seven senators, including Minority Leader Harry Reid, and over 100 members of the House of Representatives have asked Obama for such an executive order. Even Gene Sperling, former director of Obama’s National Economic Council, has said it’s “important and needed.”

But Obama has steadfastly refused to act.

So campaign finance reform advocates are understandably frustrated. After the speech, Kurt Walters of Rootstrikers, an organization co-founded by Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig and Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, called Obama’s inaction “a slap in the face to anyone who voted for him after believing his promise to fix the broken system of big money-dominated politics.” In a recent report, Rootstrikers detailed Obama’s long history of high-flown rhetoric combined with no action whatsoever on this issue.

Obama wound up the State of the Union with a pledge to anyone trying reinvigorate American democracy: “I can promise that a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen.” But if he actually cares about breaking the power of money in politics, it would be more effective if he started doing something about it while President of the United States.

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