By John Wonderlich
There's a certain conventional wisdom that President Obama wants stronger campaign finance laws, and to protect our democracy from the corrupting effects of money in politics.
It's a story that you should no longer believe.
The arc of the Obama presidency may be long, but so far, it has bent away from transparency for influence and campaign finance, and toward big funders.
There's the obvious examples, like promising (and failing) to put healthcare negotiations on C-SPAN, only to negotiate a secret agreement with a segment of the industry the reform effort sought to regulate.
But there's a longer pattern here too. Obama came to power as the outsider who would return merit to public policy, and raise up regular citizens' voices in the process, at the expense of the moneyed interests whose power had displaced regular people. (My career was kick-started, in part, by helping to inspire an amendment to a 2006 Senate bill sponsored by Obama and Salazar, an idea emerging from a series of blog posts on Daily Kos.)
Obama was the standard-bearer for post-Citizens United reform, sparring with Republican Senate opposition to ultimately fall a vote short of passing the DISCLOSE Act. 2010 was the high point for Obama's campaign finance rhetoric, where weekly speeches and Rose Garden addresses sought to affirm the dangers of dark money, and the need to understand whose money is buying Washington.
How far we've come.
Since then, Obama embraced superPACs and C4, the vehicles of newly deregulated influence-buying, suggesting that they were a necessary evil, and suggesting that the only alternative would be unilateral disarmament. A reluctant participant in a rigged game. The rationale didn't ring true even then -- the weak disclosure for these groups was justified by appeals to the same broken laws Obama spent 2010 railing against.
Then came the inauguration.
Obama reversed his policy of limiting donors for the inauguration celebration, and failed to post donation amounts online. (George W Bush had amounts and ranges online for his inauguration donors). He sold access to the inauguration, and to the presidency, to corporate donors, wheedling their way into the privileged positions that move their policy agendas forward. Obama did this for a series of parties, with no public interest justification whatsoever, and didn't disclose donor amounts. The transparency president couldn't publish donor amounts on the internet -- of corporate donors. Private citizens can make hundreds of GIFs of a comical Rubio water swilling incident within three minutes, but the President of the United States can't post corporate donation amounts online.
Transparency president no more.
And now we've got the new c4. It's hard to understate how bad this new policy is for campaign finance. Today's Los Angeles Times (via Democracy 21) explains that Obama's new c4 has been set up to sell direct access to the president, for huge sums of cash, which will be disclosed online, quarterly, without specific dollar figures. The president who told us that secret money in politics undermines democracy has now created a huge funnel for donations, with accompanying disclosure that would have been considered cutting edge in 1992. Quarterly disclosure in ranges is the kind of disclosure you create when you don't want to be seen. This should be a policy innovation Obama is remembered for -- a return to soft money and unlimited donations outside the confines of campaign finance law, with instant access to the White House for the most well-heeled donors, all, incredibly, in the name of empowering the grassroots. It's more egregious, direct, (and potentially corrupting) than the similar efforts of recent presidents who came before him, an evolutionary step forward for money in politics that is more legal, more normalized, and more powerful than it was before.
Maybe Obama has stopped talking about Citizens United because he's learned to use it to his advantage. Maybe his campaign finance rhetoric was fake all along, donning the visage of a reformer. It doesn't matter.
Obama is taking on money in politics by getting more money into his politics.
Obama has done valuable things for transparency. There are innovations that create value for everyone, and many good people in the White House have created valuable things that continue. But we should be clear about Obama's position on transparency when it comes to his political power.
It's time to stop worrying about how Obama can help fix campaign finance, and instead worry about how we fix what he's created.
John Wonderlich is the policy director for the Sunlight Foundation and one of the nation's foremost advocates for open government. John spearheads Sunlight's goal of changing the government by opening up key data sources and information to make government more accountable to citizens. He is one of the foremost authorities on transparency policy, from legislation and accountability in Congress to ethics and information policy in the executive branch. John has spoken internationally on technology and transparency and has testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He has appeared on NPR, Fox News and C-SPAN, and his expertise has been cited by The New York Times, The Washington Post and other media outlets.