Obama's Chance to Keep His Reform Promise

If the president wins a second term, he could leave no greater legacy than a corruption-free capital.


If markets are to be believed, the Republicans are headed for a trouncing in November. Intrade and the Iowa Presidential Futures market both report a bump after the GOP convention -- in exactly the wrong direction for the GOP. The current winner-take-all price on the Iowa exchange is 66 percent -- for the president. And all that was before the President's wife wowed America with a vision of just how incredible she (and he) are.

So what does Obama do now? History has given him an extraordinary opportunity to do something he said he would do four years ago, but which he has not yet begun. Yet too many around him seem to forget what he promised, and too many seem to miss just why that promise is so important.

Four years ago, Obama's campaign focused on "change." But not just the change described in Michael Grunwald's book The New New Deal. (And to pretend it was that sort of change alone would be The New Newspeak.) As well as calling for the "change" of sensible, substantive policies, Obama told us again and again that we needed to "change our politics."

As he said in San Diego in May 2007:

[I]f we do not change our politics -- if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works -- then the problems we've been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come.

Likewise, in D.C., just about a year later:

But let me be clear -- this isn't just about ending the failed policies of the Bush years; it's about ending the failed system in Washington that produces those policies. For far too long, through, both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans.

Again, in South Carolina, January 2008:

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. 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.

Indianapolis, April, 2008:

[U]nless 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.

And Philadelphia, that same month:

If we're not willing to take up that fight, then real change -- change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans -- will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.

"The reason I'm running," he said in Indianapolis, "is to challenge that system."

But of course, once he was elected, Obama did nothing "to challenge that system." In the four years since the last Democratic National Convention, he has not proposed a single change that would block lobbyists from "rigging the system" or that would "stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way." Certainly, Obama has done much to police his own administration. And he has supported the reform of disclosure rules that would create pressure on Congress. But he has not even mentioned the kind of reforms that would change the economy of influence that has corrupted Washington, one that guarantees that "real change -- change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans -- will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo."

Until a Reddit interview. Astonishingly (at least to those of us who have been aching to see him take the lead on this issue), in response to a question about "the corrupting influence of money", Obama said this:

Money has always been a factor in politics, but we are seeing something new in the no-holds-barred flow of seven and eight figure checks, most undisclosed, into super-PACs; they fundamentally threaten to overwhelm the political process over the long run and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens...I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn't revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.

Campaign officials since have made it clear that this wasn't just a Reddit afterthought. Citizens United has become a target not just of the President's anger but also of his reform. For the first time, he is discussing a change that could, if done right, make a real difference.

Presented by

Lawrence Lessig is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, director of Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, and founder of Rootstrikers, an activist network opposed to corruption in government. More

Lessig's books include Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Our Congress -- and a Plan to Stop It, One Way Forward: The Outsider's Guide to Fixing the Republicand the recent Le$terland: The Corruption of Congress and How to End It. He serves on the Board of Creative Commons, MapLight, Brave New Film Foundation, The American Academy, Berlin, AXA Research Fund and iCommons.org, and on the advisory board of the Sunlight Foundation. Lessig holds a B.A. in economics and a B.S. in management from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in philosophy from Cambridge, and a J.D. from Yale. Prior to rejoining the Harvard faculty, Lessig was a professor at Stanford Law School, where he founded the school's Center for Internet and Society, and at the University of Chicago. He clerked for Judge Richard Posner on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court.

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