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Obama's Agenda: Hope, Change and Lobby-Centricity

08/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama's self-imposed rule against lobbyists in his administration, and the method whereby he is now implementing his progressive agenda, hews toward a rather perverse irony, if not hypocrisy. He is admirably abiding by his anti-lobby diktat in most administrative nominations (with just a few small exceptions); and yet, he is simultaneously handing over his most important policy initiatives, through Congress, to the very special interests he feigns to keeps at arm's-length, furnishing them with a golden opportunity to sabotage the types of real reform they fear most. Don't let a crisis go to waste? K Street is taking that apercu to heart.

A number of observers have touched on Obama's "Congress-centricity" -- that he's given his 535 former colleagues on Capitol Hill the role of actually formulating all of his policies while he sets the broader vision for them to follow. For his part, David Brooks attributes the administration's surrendering of the legislative authorship to Democrats' failure to pass health care reform during the Clinton years -- when it was drafted behind closed doors in the White House, only to be shot down in Congress.

And of course, what is "Congress-centric" is also "lobbyist-centric" to an equal or even greater degree. Executive branch officials may be forcibly insulated from lobbyist influence, but the policies they will be enforcing will carry the stench of special interests through and through. A prime example is a recent bill to reform federal regulators' bank takeover powers that was written by the finance lobby's lawyers.

And it doesn't stop there. Lobbyists are demonstrating their clout in influencing Obama's progressive agenda and economic rescue measures day by day in the halls of Congress. In April, a crucial cramdown bankruptcy reform bill was quashed by Democrats who couldn't stand strong to a last-minute bank lobby surge. For health care reform, lobbying efforts occluded the legislative route for single-payer early on, and have since succeeded (as of this writing) in challenging a government-run insurance program to compete with the private sector*. And in cap-and-trade, Obama's original and promising plan to auction off 100 percent of the emissions allowance has since been watered down to a piffling 15 percent, with 85 percent being disbursed for free like alms to the poor.

In particular, the debate over health care and cap-and-trade now transpiring in Congress has been an all-out legislator-lobbyist orgy of disappointment, leaving each historic policy proposal vapidly deflated. And though "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" makes for a usually-wise platitude, Voltaire wasn't dealing with the exorbitance of American health care or the ecological cataclysm of global warming. Moreover, to classify the draft bills in their current states as "good" is potentially dangerous. If Potemkin village versions of each bill are to pass, it means symbolic reform will occur at the expense of real reform. And while special interest prima donnas toast to their invincibility, the inadequate policies will remain as political eyesores for those who had let them pass when the time for real reform is again called for.

Obama may have a vision, but Congress must get by with astigmatism. Being all too familiar with this, one must wonder why the administration is allowing its agenda to be sullied and sundered before its very eyes. And this isn't to say the White House is taking a hands-off approach. Quite the contrary, Obama's White House has actively courted more members of Congress so far than any other president in recent history. It's too bad such promising policies keep surfacing from the muck of the Swamp as lobbyist-infused let-downs. And with each new instance, the ironic hypocrisy of Obama's ardent anti-lobbyist stance rings truer.

One reason may be that Obama is still sympathetic to his former job. Laws are technically meant to come from the legislature, so he is leaving it up to legislators, out of respect for the system, to take the initiative from start to finish. The problem is that radical change (the type that got him elected) doesn't mix with respect for the "system", especially when the system itself is in need of some overhauls, namely in campaign financing.

Kevin Baker argues in Harper's that Obama's reticence could make him more like Hoover--an admirable thinker, no doubt--than like Roosevelt--a president who eventually embraced the need for radical change. And The Economist's Lexington column this week, quoting Arthur Schlesinger, warns of the presidential mediocrity--not greatness--that comes with too much deference to Congress.

Obama is circumventing his own touted position against special interests by outsourcing his entire platform to Congress, much to the detriment of what is meant to be an historic progressive moment. Unless the administration forgoes the willful ignorance or cynical cognizance that is allowing its agenda to be sandbagged by the same old usual suspects, these recent warnings will have been in vain.

*UPDATE: The unveiling of Senator Kennedy's health care bill today after this writing--which includes a public option and will cost just over $600--bodes well, and certainly far better than what we've seen in the banking and carbon emission sectors.