could the president pivot to anti-corruption?

Based on recent polling, Andrew Levison argues that a minority of Americans (call them the supply-siders) believe that a combination of federal spending cuts and tax cuts would boost the economy. A different minority (the Keynesians) believe that federal spending increases would help people economically. But a significant third group remains undecided. For them, the issue is not whether government programs could stimulate the economy and create jobs. The issue is whether government would succeed, given its (perceived) incompetence and corruption. A lot of people believe these statements, drawn from focus groups:

“Government can’t really solve problems. It always screws up anything it does. It can throw money around, but that’s about it.”

“The politicians in Washington don’t give the slightest damn about people like me. They take care of their fat-cat contributors and big business lobbyists and sell the average person down the river every chance they get.”

I sort of tend to believe these points myself–which is why I spent two years of the 1990s working for Common Cause and wrote a book about political reform–and my doubts have been reinforced by the way Congress responded to the financial crisis. Thus, for substantive rather than merely political reasons, I’d favor making corruption a major issue from now on in the Obama administration. And I would define corruption as the influence of money on policy.

The question is whether President Obama could make corruption his theme at this point–with any credibility and any chance of success. It would not be easy, but he did have a pretty strong record in both Illinois and the US Senate. During the presidential primary season, he regularly attacked lobbyists and Political Action Committees and saw “the issue as a bright line [between himself and] Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.” I cannot find evidence now, but I am pretty sure that he and Clinton argued about campaign finance inside the Senate Democratic caucus, with Obama taking the pro-reform position.

In the general election, I thought his campaign soft-peddled corruption somewhat, and I would attribute that decision to several factors:

  • A lot of “base” Democratic voters believed that the cause of corruption lay solely with Republicans, so defeating them in a national election would end the problem. Addressing the underlying causes of corruption was unnecessary to motivate these base voters.
  • Incumbent Democratic elected officials did not want serious reforms and would have thrown up obstacles.
  • The Obama people believed that a combination of better transparency and more small donations over the Internet would actually mitigate corruption–beliefs with which I happen to disagree.
  • “Process” issues like campaign finance reform were much less urgent in the middle of an economic free-fall than the stimulus package and health reform. The strategy was to pass those bills despite special-interest pressure.

All those factors make the lack of attention to political reform at least forgivable. But the result was wasteful economic policy that benefited banks and rich taxpayers more than it had to; and now the whole federal policy agenda has stalled.

After Obama was elected, the Supreme Court made the situation starkly worse with the Citizens United decision that legalized campaign contributions by corporations. Whether because of Citizens United or for other reasons, the amount of private money spent on elections quintupled between 2006 and 2010 (successive midterm years).

Citizens United creates a rhetorical opening for the president. Even though the majority didn’t exactly say that corporations are persons (they rather cited corporations as associations under the First Amendment and treated money as speech), the decision is certainly unpopular–and for good reasons. Besides, from a narrowly partisan perspective, it’s easier for a Democratic president to attack the funding perquisites of Congress when the House happens to be in Republican hands.

Thus I think the President has an opportunity to say: “I have always criticized wealthy special interests and fought for reform. I chose not to make campaign reform my first priority when I entered the White House in the middle of an economic collapse, but now I think that was a mistake. I didn’t fully grasp the insidious power of money and how it frustrates our efforts to restore the real, working economy of America. In any case, now that the Supreme Court says that corporations can give unlimited money to candidates to get the policies they want, I realize this is our number-one issue. It’s a precondition for making the government work for people, not for rich interests.”

The next question is what he would actually fight for. I would recommend a Constitutional Amendment for campaign finance reform, not as a panacea, but as a helpful policy that would also send a strong public message that government and the market are two different spheres and that money is problematic in politics. Wealthy interests will always have disproportionate political power, but that does not mean that their deliberate efforts are respectable. Money is not speech, lobbies are not civil society, and corporate pressure is not “government relations.” Restoring these elements of our traditional public philosophy would put some constraints on the most egregious behavior.