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.

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.

Second, Obama the Chicago pol must execute a strategy that enforces this lesson -- through discipline and electoral punishment if necessary. He should call on the Senate leadership to punish the militant minority, by changing the filibuster rule to at least restore the requirement that the opposition show up, stand up, and speak up if they want to stop the government from acting. Let "efficiency" be the norm for how the government gets things done, rather than the Senate's practice of enabling a minority to stop the government from doing anything. Here again, Republicans have abused an ancient tradition. That abuse should not be ignored.

And, likewise, in 2014: Let the enforcer identify those members of Congress who are behaving badly, and let him campaign against them directly. With respect, and dignity, on the merits, and with patience. But let no one in Congress believe that bad behavior will be ignored.

Finally, Obama the community organizer must begin a conversation with Americans of every political stripe to devise a strategy for ending the corrupting influence of money in American politics. Let him demand that Congress give him the means to convene a series of "citizen conventions" that would address the problems of Congress and propose changes all Americans might agree upon. These conventions should not be "town halls" or photo-ops for politicians. They should instead be a serious effort to elicit the views of ordinary Americans about how this corruption should end. Draft 500 citizens, randomly selected, for each convention as a kind of civic jury, pay them enough, protect their jobs, and then give them both the information they need to understand the problem and the opportunity to deliberate about it. And through a series of these conversations, let Obama then organize a strategy he can take to the American people in 2014 for changing the way Washington works. We are too cynical to believe that Washington can fix itself, and we are too polarized to follow the reforms proposed by any one side. But we might be willing to listen to people like us -- if we could be convinced they fairly represented us, and they knew enough to understand how this corruption might be solved.

For four years, Obama has fought to earn the right to lead us. Twice elected in the worst economic conditions the nation has known in 80 years, it is time he see that he has earned that right. Let him "take up that fight" to change the way Washington works, if indeed "real change -- change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans" is not to be "blocked by the defenders of the status quo."