The populist tone of President Obama's State of the Union speech was no surprise; since he went to Kansas last month to link his presidency to the "new nationalism" of Theodore Roosevelt, it has been clear that the president will seek reelection by casting himself as a champion of economic fairness.
Bully for him, as TR might say, and even better for the country if he can capture a bit of Roosevelt's energy and passion. We could use both those qualities in a president these days, as heirs of the corporate titans Roosevelt battled a century ago hold sway over Washington.
But watching Obama's address, I was struck by his failure to strike at the heart of what's wrong -- the enormous sums of money that special interests, particularly big corporations, have invested to buy our elections and the power that goes with them.
Thanks to the Supreme Court, in Citizens United and a string of other decisions, corporate and other special interest dollars now flow virtually unimpeded through our political system. The court's declaration that corporations are people and enjoy the same free speech rights most of us thought were reserved to individuals has put big money in control.
In Washington and most state capitals, political leaders have long understood that deep-pocketed donors can make and break their careers; now "SuperPACs," fueled by anonymously-donated corporate money, are allowing those politicians to keep their hands clean while their friends do the dirty work of tearing down their political opponents.
There are several ways to attack this stranglehold on our democracy; full disclosure of corporate contributions would help, and so would public financing of our elections. The president's call for a bill to stop the bundling of campaign contributions by lobbyists is another positive step, as is his call for a ban on insider trading by members of Congress.
But to really put people back in charge, we must force passage of a constitutional amendment that will permit sensible controls on corporate political spending.
An array of organizations and some courageous elected officials are pushing a variety of amendment proposals. All have merit, and polls suggest an amendment would have strong public support, but I'm convinced that none will move forward until voters demand it.
That's why Common Cause has launched Amend2012, a campaign to help voters speak where they're sure to be heard -- at the ballot box. We want to give voters the tools to put a voter initiative or referendum question on the ballot in as many states as possible so that the people can instruct their representatives and senators to pass an amendment and submit it to the states for ratification.
We understand that this is a heavy lift; amending the Constitution isn't easy and it shouldn't be. We may only get on the ballot in a few states this year and we know that it will take several years to get a vote in every state.
But we've made a start and we're determined to see it through. If the president and his Republican adversaries truly are serious about change in Washington, they'll join us.
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