Why Hasn't Obama Governed the Way He Promised in 2008?

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Rather than pretend that he has stuck to the proposal he laid out as a candidate, he should come forward with a frank explanation for his reversals.

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Reuters

On a typical day, a steady stream of lobbyists visit the White House hoping to influence Obama Administration officials, T.W. Farnam reports after exhaustively reviewing visitor logs for The Washington Post. "Lobbyists with personal connections to the White House enjoy the easiest access," he writes. "The White House visitor records make it clear that Obama's senior officials are granting that access to some of K Street's most influential representatives." This comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the role that lobbyists play in Washington, D.C. (History lesson here.)

This "business as usual" is noteworthy only because President Obama campaigned in 2008 on the promise that things would be different. "We are up against the belief that it's all right for lobbyists to dominate our government -- that they are just part of the system in Washington," he said, using language that he repeated on many occasions. "But we know that the undue influence of lobbyists is part of the problem, and this election is our chance to say that we're not going to let them stand in our way anymore. Unless we're willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change."

As Larry Lessig has explained most eloquently:

Obama hasn't played the game that he promised. Instead, the game he has played has been exactly the game that Hillary Clinton promised and that Bill Clinton executed: striking a bargain with the most powerful lobbyists as a way to get a bill through -- and as it turns out, the people don't have the most powerful lobbyists. As I watched this strategy unfold, I could not believe it. The idealist in me certainly could not believe that Obama would run a campaign grounded in "change" yet execute an administration that changed nothing of the "way Washington works."

But the pragmatist in me also could not believe it. I could not begin to understand how this administration thought that it would take on the most important lobbying interests in America and win without a strategy to change the power of those most important lobbying interests. Nothing close to the reform that Obama promised is possible under the current system; so if that reform was really what Obama sought, changing the system was an essential first step.

Yet the Obama Administration is still pretending that it has governed in accordance with its 2008 platform. Said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, "The people selected for this article are registered lobbyists, but this article excludes the thousands of people who visit the White House every week for meetings and events who are not. Our goal has been to reduce the influence of special interests in Washington -- which we've done more than any administration in history."

It's time for the Obama Administration to come clean and stop insulting our intelligence. On numerous subjects, Candidate Obama and President Obama have taken contradictory approaches. On lobbying, transparency, whistle-blower protection, the War Powers Resolution, the Patriot Act, indefinite detention, and other issues besides, either candidate Obama was lying about his views -- the uncharitable explanation -- or else something about becoming president changed his mind, whether new information or different responsibilities or a new perspective.

And we're owed an explanation. Obama should explain that while he's achieved some of what he promised as a candidate, like passing a major health-care-reform bill, killing Osama bin Laden, and pulling American troops out of Iraq, he also came to think that he got some things wrong back in 2007 and 2008, and that he owes Americans an account of why his thinking changed.

I honestly don't know whether such an accounting would help or hurt him politically. That probably depends on how adeptly he executed it. What's safer to say is that it would end the ongoing charade that there have been no major reversals. It's that sort of dishonesty that alienates voters from the democratic process. It can even be radicalizing, as critics of the status quo cease trusting even pols who say the right things. Obama said he'd be an antidote to such cynicism. Unless he changes course, his legacy will include having exacerbated it, perhaps permanently. If so, he'll do significant long-term damage to the progressive project, which depends most heavily on public faith in a functional federal government that serves the people.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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