Good government groups wanted President Obama to “go big” on Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to the flood of money, much of it from anonymous sources, taking over political campaigns, and undermining democracy.
Reformers had made their case in countless meetings, urging aides to have Obama use his State of the Union speech, which fell this year on the eve of the fifth anniversary of Citizens United, to acknowledge its corrupting influence. They also hoped he might even announce remedies he might embrace.
The White House, reform advocates say, was receptive. Obama had already denounced Citizens United from his State of the Union bully pulpit just days after the decision was handed down in January 2010. The timing seemed right to return to the issue for a president who had found his voice in the aftermath of his party being routed in the November midterm election.
Reformers say they were assured that Obama would make a broad point about the evils of Citizens United. But they were also cautioned by the White House against expecting anything more, and warned about violating confidences if they spoke out of school about the process.
Washington being what it is, the rumor mill went into high gear. Over the weekend, the word was that Obama might flesh out his rhetorical remarks with a policy directive ordering federal contractors to make their political contributions public. That would set a significant example as a first step in cleaning up Washington; it would also irritate a lot of people, Democrats too, and sometime Monday, it was out of the speech. That is, if it was ever really in.
The gamesmanship around the State of the Union is intense. Promises are made and then not kept as the White House whittles down everybody’s wish list. Just hours before Obama would step into the House chamber to deliver the speech, reformers got word that the Citizens United mention had been struck from his remarks. The White House, they were told, didn’t want to detract from the middle class economy that had become the dominant theme of the speech.
One disappointed activist said in an e-mail, “Apparently the WH is the only place in DC where the links between money spent on campaigns and lobbying and the policies that further advantage the rich are not obvious.”
But then, miracle of miracles, Obama did his riff on “a better politics.” The promised mention, albeit in abbreviated form, was back in as Obama declared, “a better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up with a sense of purpose and possibility, asking them to join in the great mission of building America.”
It wasn’t quite what activists wanted, or even what they thought was promised, but they were ecstatic anyway. On Wednesday, as protestors gathered in Washington outside the Chamber of Commerce, the biggest spender of dark money, Obama released a statement expanding on his brief remark.
“The Citizens United decision was wrong, and it has caused real harm to our democracy,” the statement read. “With each new campaign season, this dark money floods our airwaves with more and more political ads that pull our politics into the gutter. It’s time to reverse this trend. Rather than bolster the power of lobbyists and special interests, Washington should lift up the voices of ordinary Americans and protect their democratic right to determine the direction of the country that we love.”
Nice words, but where’s the beef? An executive action ordering federal contractors to disclose campaign contributions won’t happen until spring, if then, and reclaiming democracy from the grip of secret money won’t happen just because Obama said it should.
Still, his words are a catalyst for a movement that is setting down roots elsewhere, in state houses around the country, and on Capitol Hill. There, Democratic leaders re-introduced a “Defend Democracy” legislative package on Wednesday that includes disclosure of contributions and a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United.
Marissa Brown, the executive director of the Democracy Initiative, a pro-transparency group, said her movement was “emboldened” by the president’s statement. The group, she said, expected that “meaningful changes will be attained in President Obama's last two years in office -- executive actions by the President to force disclosure by government contractors and an SEC rule mandating that corporations disclose political contributions are distinct possibilities.”
The movement is also making inroads with voters, who seem to be tiring of the post-ruling status quo. Polls show that the American public is increasingly connecting the dots between campaign contributions and the government’s inability to solve problems.
The White House probably made the right call in pulling back from a confrontation over Citizens United in the State of the Union, where it wanted to showcase its middle-class economic agenda. But getting that agenda accomplished can’t be disentangled from the campaign money that has captured lawmakers – and, along with them, the legislative process.