Seizing 'Forward': 3 Steps Obama Must Take to Fight Corruption and Gridlock

In 2008, the candidate promised to change the "system in Washington." It's time for him to deliver on that promise.

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Jason Reed/Reuters

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 .... 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.

Four and a half years ago, these were the words of Senator Barack Obama, candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, as he challenged presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton and rallied a nation to the idea that the "system in Washington" had to change.

Yet it is only now, after winning a decisive victory in a race that history said could not be won (only one man in 100 years has won reelection with unemployment as high), that Obama can deliver on that challenge. America is primed for the reform that candidate Obama told us we needed. It is now time -- and high time -- for President Obama to "take up that fight."

The clue that we, the people, are now ready comes from the two issues that we told pollsters we thought were important but that neither Obama nor Romney even mentioned in this campaign.

In July, USA Today and Gallup asked Americans to rank their "top priorities" for the next president. Number nine on that list was "overcoming political gridlock in Washington." Number two was "reducing corruption in the federal government." Yet neither issue even made it onto either candidate's campaign website, and for obvious reasons. For Obama to complain about gridlock would reinforce Romney's charge that he couldn't work with Congress. For either to even mention the way money has corrupted American politics would be to invite the inevitable charge of hypocrisy, as both candidates worked hard to inspire others to support their own super PACs.

So it's understandable that these issues were invisible before November 6. But Election Day has passed. If we're to move forward, as the Obama campaign told us we would, Obama now needs to seize the opportunity his victory has given him to take up that fight -- and win.

For it is even clearer today than it was in 2008 that unless we fix political gridlock and corruption the capacity of America to govern will be at an end. The partisanship of American politics is worse than at any time since Reconstruction. The role of special interests in funding elections is worse than at any time since the Gilded Age. If these flaws are not fixed, America will not move forward. Yet Americans are desperate for them to be fixed, because we're desperate again for a government that might work.

There are three steps this president must take now, each reflecting an aspect of his extraordinary talents.

First, Obama the teacher must show us just how bad things have become. He should draw his lesson from the work of the most important scholars of Congress today, Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, whose latest book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks, details the incredibly depressing story of just how broken the legislature is.

And in teaching that story, he needs precisely Mann and Ornstein's courage, to assign responsibility where responsibility lies. It is the Republicans who have broken the system our Framers gave us, by embracing a sort of militant minority-ism that might work with parliaments but only destroys the capacity of constitutional democracies with separation of powers to function. Obama must rally America to the idea that such intransigence is wrong. That the permanent war of Washington is wrong. And that Congress must learn to work together to address the problems the nation demands be solved. That means to reverse the norms that Newt Gingrich initiated, so as to get Congress to work again. Let members hang out with the enemy -- i.e., members from the other party. Let them have weekend paintball battles. But demand that they learn how to listen and compromise -- recognizing that no extreme defines America, and that they work for America.

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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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