A week after the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, the chief of his transition team, John Podesta, served notice that the president would make good on his campaign promise of change in the area of ethics. In a statement, Mr. Podesta said:
President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to change the way Washington works and curb the influence of lobbyists. … During the campaign, federal lobbyists could not contribute to or raise money for the campaign. … [T]he president-elect is taking those commitments even further by announcing the strictest, and most far reaching ethics rules of any transition team in history.”
Presumably, that means President Obama wishes to end the pay-to-play philosophy that pervades the practice of politics. Well, he’s got some explaining to do, because what he promises is not always what he does.
Case No. 1: Yes, the president said he’d nominate some of his financial backers as ambassadors. But the number’s growing. According to the Center for Responsive Politics:
President Obama announced another 10 names for ambassadorships last week, and in doing so, he awarded another set of big donors and bundlers with plum positions representing U.S. interests abroad. The new nominees for ambassadors to Belize, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Romania and Switzerland — along with their spouses and dependent children — have contributed at least $637,800 to federal candidates, parties and committees since 1989, CRP has found. Nearly that entire sum has gone to Democrats, including $32,775 to Obama himself and $8,300 to former primary opponent and now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. These individuals also brought in at least $1.1 million for Obama’s presidential bid as bundlers, and at least another half-a-million as bundlers for his inauguration.
To date, this brings the contribution histories of Obama’s ambassador nominees to roughly $1.8 million in donations since 1989. The 19 ambassadors that CRP has found in our campaign contribution database, along with their spouses and children, have given more than $98,200 to Obama personally, bundled at least $3.4 million for his 2008 presidential run and bundled another $1.4 million for his inauguration.
Do these nominations transgress on his promise of change? Well, these people paid — and now they get to play. To be fair, however, presidents have rewarded financial backers with ambassadorships since the birth of the Republic. Let’s wait a bit and see how his record stacks up against the nomination histories of Presidents Bush I and II and Clinton. But President Obama’s nominations of financial backers are troubling in light of his promise of change.
Case No. 2: Jeff Zeleny, a White House correspondent for The New York Times, reported this earlier this week:
When President Obama arrived at the Mandarin Oriental hotel for a fund-raising reception on Thursday night, the new White House rules of political purity were in order: no lobbyists allowed.
But at the same downtown hotel on Friday morning, registered lobbyists have not only been invited to attend an issues conference with Democratic leaders, but they have also been asked to come with a $5,000 check in hand if they want to stay in good favor with the party’s House and Senate re-election committees.
The practicality of Mr. Obama’s pledge to change the ways of Washington is colliding once more with the reality of how money, influence and governance interact here. He repeatedly declared while campaigning last year that he would “not take a dime” from lobbyists or political action committees.
So to follow through with that promise, Mr. Obama is simply leaving the room. [emphasis added]
I have written about campaign finance for years. I never expected any politician, including President Obama, to live up to any promise to curb the influence of money in politics. Is he following the letter or spirit of his promise of change with regard to political money? Or has he merely developed a system of sidesteps to maintain the appearance of sticking to a promise?
Does this matter? Should we care that the president of the United States promises reform over the influence of money in politics but balks at bold, transparent steps to achieve it? Yes, on both counts.
Surely he will seek re-election. Recall, please, that presidential candidates in the 2008 cycle spent $1.8 billion. That’s more than double the $883 million presidential candidates spent in the 2004 cycle.
Is there any reason to believe — with out-of-power Republicans wanting back in and a Democratic president seeking re-election — that the cost of the 2012 election won’t be twice as high as 2008?
President Obama will need a boatload of bucks. He may philosophically wish to curb the influence of money in politics, but he will continue to be ruled by the need for the money to maintain power … as his opponents will be in their attempts to regain power.
On the president’s “Ethics” page at the White House website, this phrase is repeatedly used: “in the spirit of transparency …” So far, it’s mere fiction.
He will continue the charade of “stepping out of the room” because he needs the money. Can’t say I blame him … but I expected better.