(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.)
President Barack Obama begins his second term this week with reporters across the country attempting to size up the lessons from his first.
In assessing his first four years, however, the media are failing to address how much big money has become a reactionary force in American politics. Obama isn’t just the first incumbent president forced to deal with a Citizens United election system; he’s also faced unprecedented intransigence from America’s largest corporations, a K Street culture in DC that seduces the brightest minds with bags of cash, and lobbyists more eager than ever to take policy battles to the grassroots.
The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, says the young president is now aware of “how violently the political pendulum can swing.” The conventional wisdom is that Obama came into office with sky-high approval ratings and a popular mandate; spent that political capital on a bruising health reform fight; failed to uphold expectations from his base and lost the House of Representatives in the midterm campaign; then, rallied from the low point of the debt ceiling negotiations to a commanding re-election campaign last year.
I don’t disagree with the broad outlines of this narrative. The problem is that many of these accounts do not explain how special-interest lobbying shaped Obama’s hurdles.
The new PBS Frontline documentary on the first term, “Inside Obama’s Presidency,” is a perfect example of news missing part of the story. The piece accurately notes Republicans misled the administration about needing extended time to debate health reform, and that such delaying tactics were in fact part of a strategy to kill the measure.
There is no mention that several of the industry stakeholders, like chief health insurance lobbyist Karen Ignagni, who promised to work towards a proactive solution, were also misleading Obama. One expert in the documentary characterized the summer of 2009 thusly: “The clock is ticking, the calendar is moving … the weight of public opinion is turning against this health care plan.”
The weight of public opinion was being dragged by expensive lies.
The documentary carried no mention of the $323.75 million in negative advertising spent by opponents of health reform, or the hundreds of millions spent by lobbyists working to water down, prevent or roll back the law. There is no mention of the $450,000 starting salaries handed out to Democratic Senate staffers willing to defect and work for lobby firms. No mention of insurance industry money to secret money efforts against Democratic lawmakers. And PBS did not disclose that opposition groups, with tens of millions in funding, financed a small army of organizers to fan out into states to coordinate anti–health reform Tea Parties and town-hall events.
Obama’s open hand to the business community led to many daggers in the back. After Obama shielded bailed-out bankers from anger at their extravagant bonuses, they repaid him by fighting tooth and nail against the most measured of financial reforms. After Obama helped secure a stimulus package the US Chamber of Commerce strongly supported, the same Chamber ran commercials against lawmakers (all Democrats) who voted for the “failed stimulus.”
Washington, DC, is a city where an elected official can receive a 1,452 percent raise simply by joining the ranks of the influence industry. (In related news today, Ben Nelson, the Democratic senator from Nebraska who nearly killed health reform, has become an insurance industry official and an adviser to a lobbying firm.) The Obama administration pleaded with lawmakers to enact meaningful reforms, but an inside strategy can only go so far when the benefits of selling out are so dazzling.
So it is heartening that Obama has reportedly decided to embark on his second term with a realization that he must out-maneuver entrenched interests if he wants to change them. There are signs that the populist tone that won him another four years in office is here to last. And the best indication of a more experienced Obama is the news that he will be utilizing his volunteer army through his campaign arm, which has been transformed into a nonprofit called “Organizing for America.”
Four years ago, Obama largely retired his legions of volunteers in the first few months of 2009 by folding his campaign apparatus into the DNC, where it remained dormant while the administration struggled to cut insider deals to pass legislation. In 2013, expect to see Obama supporters engaged on multiple policy arenas, from climate change to immigration to gun regulations to the debt ceiling.
For Obama’s second term, even with a weaker position given the composition of Congress, he may succeed by returning to his community-organizing roots — a recognition that social movements are an essential component in advancing progressive reforms over corporate or partisan opposition.