WASHINGTON -- Campaign finance reformers and government watchdogs were disappointed Tuesday night when President Barack Obama failed to include any messages around money in politics in his 2013 State of the Union address. Advocates were hoping to hear about a range of issues, from money in politics to transparency to lobbying.
This was actually the first of Obama's State of the Union addresses where the president did not mention any steps that reformers have championed to reduce the influence of big money or lobbyists in the political system.
"Historically, President Obama has spoken forcefully about his commitment to addressing the money in politics crisis, but has failed to follow through with anything of substance," said Josh Silver, president of campaign finance and lobbying reform organization United Republic and the director of Represent.us, an effort to pass a campaign finance reform bill. "This week he abandoned even the pretense of leading reform."
Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance reform organization Democracy 21, said that the president has completely abandoned an issue that he has long championed.
"They have pretty much walked away from, certainly, the campaign finance issue," Wertheimer said. They've given no indications that they're going to help deal with, without question, what is a fundamental problem for the country."
John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that supports campaign finance, lobbying and government transparency reforms, said, "If Obama ceases to care about transparency and ethics, we'll end up with a State of the Union about those issues yet again, but as a response to scandal."
Obama's use of the State of the Union to include some mention of government or campaign finance reform goes back to a small mention in his 2009 address where he touted the lack of earmarks in the recently passed stimulus bill, saying, "I’m proud that we passed the recovery plan free of earmarks."
Obama's calls for reforms accelerated in his 2010 address, which was delivered just days after the Supreme Court freed corporations and unions to spend on elections in their Citizens United decision.
"With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections," Obama said in 2010. "I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems."
The 2010 State of the Union also featured call for earmark reform -- "Tonight, I'm calling on Congress to publish all earmark requests on a single website before there's a vote, so that the American people can see how their money is being spent" -- and lobbying reform -- "It's time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my administration or with Congress. It's time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office."
The 2011 address dropped campaign finance reform and any mention of Citizens United, but continued with increased calls for earmark and lobbying reform.
"And because the American people deserve to know that special interests aren’t larding up legislation with pet projects, both parties in Congress should know this: if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it," Obama said in 2011.
His call for lobbying reform in 2011 echoed his 2010 position: "Because you deserve to know when your elected officials are meeting with lobbyists, I ask Congress to do what the White House has already done: put that information online."
In 2012, the president returned to talk about the "corrosive influence of money in politics," but focused on small-bore reforms like the passage of a bill to ban insider trading among members of Congress and banning lobbyists from bundling campaign contributions and bundlers from lobbying.
"Send me a bill that bans insider trading by Members of Congress, and I will sign it tomorrow," Obama said in 2012. "Let’s limit any elected official from owning stocks in industries they impact. Let’s make sure people who bundle campaign contributions for Congress can’t lobby Congress, and vice-versa –- an idea that has bipartisan support, at least outside of Washington."