Obama 2.0: Losing That Loving Feeling – And Getting It Back

As noted in an earlier post, the Obama Administration is sorely in need of a “re-boot” to realign its core message and agenda with voters’ concerns.  There’s no question that Obama 2.0 has to be relentlessly focused on jobs and the economy, since they remain voters’ biggest concerns.  But the Administration is in need of thematic repositioning, too.

While watching HBO’s documentary about the 2008 election the other day, I was struck by how much the Obama Administration has lost the transformative “Yes We Can” spirit of the Obama Campaign.  This was, to a large extent inevitable — as Mario Cuomo once said, “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” Speaking eloquently about the bricks and mortar of government – budget estimates, appropriations, regulations and the like – is beyond the rhetorical reach of even this gifted First Orator.

Still, the Obama campaign carried the promise of a different style of government – one that explicitly challenged the way things were done in Washington (i.e., a process driven by lobbyists, special interests, earmarks and a lack of transparency) — as a means of bringing about more substantive change for the country.   Yet despite a lot of happy talk from the White House’s semi-delusional ethics czar, the Obama Administration has no real reform agenda to change the fundamentals of how Washington works.

Sure, the Administration’s grossly over-hyped ethics rules have kept it from hiring some (but by no means all) former lobbyists.  But the real power in Washington resides on Capitol Hill, and members of Congress remain as dependent as ever on lobbyists for fundraising.  Check a Member’s schedule while he or she is in Washington:  there are usually at least three, and often as many as six, fundraisers a day, all of which are populated almost entirely by lobbyists and their clients.    Frank Rich was right when he wrote last month that in President Obama’s Washington, “nothing except the party affiliations has changed in the Beltway’s pay-for-play culture since Tom DeLay.”

My suggestion is for a comprehensive prohibition on federal fundraising (contributing or soliciting contributions) by lobbyists.  South Carolina (yes, the state too small to be a republic and too big to be an insane asylum) has such a ban, and eleven other states ban lobbyist fundraising while their legislatures are in session.   The D.C. Circuit upheld the constitutionality of a similar “pay to play” ban imposed by the SEC on fundraising by firms seeking municipal bond business in 1995.

Banning lobbyist fundraising wouldn’t take special interest money out of politics.  But it would change the culture in Washington by separating campaign money from the lobbying culture.  Without the access and the “juice” provided by fundraising, lobbyists are just former Members and staffers with no special claim on a Member’s time, ear, or heart.

Such a ban would help Obama 2.0 to recapture some of the spirit of the Obama Campaign and put a little distance between the President and the Democratic Congress.  (Quick: try to name an issue on which the Obama Administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress are fundamentally at odds.  You can’t.  Zippo, zilch, nada.)

In the past, voters have favored divided government as a means of checking the excesses of one-party rule.  If they don’t believe that President Obama will check the excesses of congressional Democrats, they will vote for Republican congressional candidates who will.


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