How Obama Rid Washington of Special Interest Lobbyists, Except for All the Special Interest Lobbyists


President Barack Obama's weekly radio address over the weekend was an attack on the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. the FEC. The second paragraph alone is well worth the price of admission. Some lines, with additional annotations:

In my first year in office, we pushed back on that power by implementing historic reforms to get rid of the influence of those special interests.

Obama's lobbying reforms, combined with an activist year of federal lawmaking, helped produce a record year for lobbying. The only way that the phrase "to get rid of" here is not a lie is if you read it as an aspirational intent, and take the president at his word.

On my first day in office, we closed the revolving door between lobbying firms and the government so that no one in my administration would make decisions based on the interests of former or future employers.  

If that were true, former Raytheon lobbyist William J. Lynn wouldn't be deputy defense secretary, former National Partnership for Women and Families lobbyist Jocelyn Frye would not be director of policy and projects in the Office of the First Lady, former National Council of La Raza lobbyist Cecilia Muñoz wouild not be Obama's director of intergovernmental affairs, and former Goldman Sachs lobbyist Mark Patterson would not be Timothy Geithner's chief of staff, for starters. As the St. Petersburg Times' valuable PolitiFact.com puts it, "we have concluded that Obama has broken this promise."

We imposed tough restrictions to prevent funds for our recovery from lining the pockets of the well-connected, instead of creating jobs for Americans.

The biggest single national political donor in the country during the 2007-08 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org, was the overwhelmingly Democrat-supporting teachers union the National Education Association. What category of worker was the biggest single beneficiary of stimulus spending? Public school teachers. Who, according to Vice President Joe Biden, accounted for 325,000 of the first 640,000 jobs "created or saved." While it's true that teachers are Americans (even my brother), in the vast majority of these cases, the jobs in question weren't "created," just maintained, since it is nearly impossible to fire public school teachers.

As for other "well-connected" types, the stimulus was filled with what Pro Publica called "earmarks by any other name," what U.S. News termed as "pork," and which by any nomenclature involves legislators directing money toward favored projects based on the recommendations of people they know best. I don't think you saw many unused airports not named after 17-term congressmen receiving $800,000 in stimulus funds to pay for an alternate runway. And for what it's worth, the region-by-region correlation between stimulus spending and joblessness has been far weaker than the correlation between stimulus spending and voter enthusiasm for Barack Obama.

Beyond exaggerating the impact of his good-government reforms, the president cranked up the alarm-o-meter on the ruling itself to 11:

I can't think of anything more devastating to the public interest. […]

A hundred years ago, one of the great Republican Presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, fought to limit special interest spending and influence over American political campaigns and warned of the impact of unbridled, corporate spending. His message rings as true as ever today, in this age of mass communications, when the decks are too often stacked against ordinary Americans.  And as long as I'm your President, I'll never stop fighting to make sure that the most powerful voice in Washington belongs to you.

Actually, in this age of niche communications, which has replaced Mass (thank God), it's never been more easy for millions of ordinary Americans to bundle their money together in enthusiastic swarms, creating enormous impact on the political process. Now those people will be legally cleared to communicate political messages during the run-up to elections, without having to negotiate a tangle of federal laws. Will they be drowned out by Big Corporate?

Well let me tell you a fable. Once upon a time, the biggest special interests of a certain hated industry worked for nearly a year in the shadowy back rooms of the Beltway, crafting an overhaul of their industry with the most powerful politicians on the planet. They flooded the political process with money, outspending opponents of their corporatist plan by 5 to 1. The party in power, for the first time since 1968, had a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate, and members who were itching to pass the legislation. Yet these special interests lost. Why? For one crucial reason: Ordinary Americans decided they didn't like it, and would punish those who did at the ballot box. Turns out that the people can only be drowned out for so long.