Obama's Chance to Keep His Reform Promise

By Lawrence Lessig

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

obamaban.jpg
Reuters

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.

This is an incredible opportunity, made even more likely to happen by the blunders of the Republicans. Forgetting that grassroots Republicans hate cronyism as much as they hate lattes, the GOP platform actually endorsed the mother of all cronyism -- Citizens United. The Republican Party is thus doubling down on the idea that big money should rule, even though most Republican voters don't actually buy it. By returning to his reformist roots, Obama could not only rally his disappointed base; he could also begin to split sensible Republicans from their blundering leaders. And if he gets enough of these Republicans, this election could well give the President the mandate he needs to bring about real reform.

But he needs to do this right. Overturning Citizens United wouldn't be enough. It might not even be necessary. For the problem at the core of this democracy was well-ensconced long before the Supreme Court's blunder. And while the Court has certainly made things worse, fixing that core problem will take more than fixing the Court.

The president should begin by naming the problem: Its name is "corruption." Not the corruption of bribes, or influence-peddling, but the corruption of an economy of influence that flows naturally from the obsessive search for campaign funds. Most Americans get this. Indeed, as Gallup reports, most Americans rank "corruption" at the very top of the most important issues facing the nation. Obama should tag the enemy with that name, and then describe the steps he would take to fix it.

But those steps need to actually address the problem: We fund campaigns from the tiniest slice of the 1 percent. We need to change the way we fund campaigns so that the money comes from the rest of us as well. There's no silver bullet. There's not even an obvious constitutional amendment. So there must instead be a process that could earn the trust of enough of us and grab the mandate to make it real.

And that means Obama must do what for most would be impossible: rise above the right/left politics that defeats every important idea in Washington, by speaking not as the Democrat-in-chief but as the president.

He must convince all of us that he will take on the cronies of the left as well as the right. And he must show us that while partisanship may be the stuff of Congress, it is not the stuff of a president. He should launch a new tradition for second-term presidents, by resigning from his party once this election is behind him. And he should speak clearly now to the people about the nature and need for reform:

"I promise again to take up the fight to change the way Washington works," he might say. "Not as a Democrat, and not against the Republicans, but as a president chosen by the people to bring about the reform that this government needs. Only with that reform can we make sensible policy again. Only with that reform can we address the problems Americans care about in the way they want them addressed. Only with that reform can we assure that 'real change -- change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans' won't again get 'blocked by the defenders of the status quo.' Because only with that reform can we take away the power of the status quo to block real change."

History gives leaders gifts like this only rarely. Rarer still is the leader who can do good with history's gifts. This president could -- if he would remember his campaign's roots, and start there again.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/09/obamas-chance-to-keep-his-reform-promise/262009/