Obama Warns That Corporations Are Taking Over While Insisting They Do Not Have the Power to Do So


In his weekly radio address on Saturday, President Obama once again warned the Citizens United v. FEC, the January decision in which the Supreme Court overturned restrictions on political speech by corporations, delivered control of our democracy to "special interests using front groups with misleading names," including "foreign-controlled corporations." His remarks this time are notable for a couple of reasons. Instead of claiming that "the Supreme Court reversed a century of law," as he did in his State of the Union speech this year (the remark that provoked Justice Samuel Alito, sitting in the audience, to shake his head and mouth the words "not true"), Obama now says "this decision overturned decades of law and precedent." Since the federal ban on independent election spending by corporations was not enacted until 1947, and the Court did not address the constitutionality of such restrictions until 1990, the revised formulation is more accurate.

Obama accidentally concedes a deeper truth toward the end of his speech:

You can make sure that the tens of millions of dollars spent on misleading ads do not drown out your voice.  Because no matter how many ads they run–no matter how many elections they try to buy–the power to determine the fate of this country doesn't lie in their hands. It lies in yours.

Exactly right, Mr. President. No matter how shadowy or flush with corporate dollars an interest group is, the only thing Citizens United allowed it to do is speak. Advocacy has no impact unless it persuades people. So why not talk about the issues instead of impugning the motives of people who take a different position on them than you do?

Although Obama's vehement disapproval of Citizens United shows that he sees the problem as too much speech by the wrong people, he claims that all he wants now is to reveal the backers behind the "front groups" and let the public consider that information in evaluating their messages. Leaving aside the logical fallacy here (i.e., the idea that a speaker's self-interest shows he is wrong), Obama, like other supporters of the DISCLOSE Act, exaggerates the ability of ad sponsors to conceal their donors. Former FEC Chairman Brad Smith, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, notes that political action committees (groups that explicitly call for a candidate's election or defeat), sponsors of "electioneering communications" (which mention a federal candidate close to an election), and 527 groups already are required to report their donors to the FEC or the IRS.