In a big money town, ‘change you can believe in’ ended up being just small change

It was just a lie. For all the many good and earnest efforts of the Obama administration in its two-and-a-half years in office, there is one area in which the president has not only let the country down, he has embarrassed himself and his party. He vowed to keep the corrupting influence of money and ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

It was just a lie.

For all the many good and earnest efforts of the Obama administration in its two-and-a-half years in office, there is one area in which the president has not only let the country down, he has embarrassed himself and his party.

He vowed to keep the corrupting influence of money and special interests out of politics. He campaigned on the idea. When he took office, he made a great show of banning lobbyists from appointed offices. It was a silly idea. Many of the most qualified people available for government jobs had to register as lobbyists. What's more, the people that hired the lobbyists, were not precluded from the jobs even though they were actually the ones directing lobbying efforts and footing the bill for them. Further, the approach rewarded people who probably should have registered as lobbyists but didn't. Finally, lawyers who represented and advised clients and industries were not precluded or bankers that financed them were not barred although they were every bit as compromised by association with special interests as were the people performing the narrowly defined functions that fell under the lobbying rubric. Overall, the approach did not work out very well and gradually the administration has let former lobbyists start to slip through the cracks.

It was just a lie.

For all the many good and earnest efforts of the Obama administration in its two-and-a-half years in office, there is one area in which the president has not only let the country down, he has embarrassed himself and his party.

He vowed to keep the corrupting influence of money and special interests out of politics. He campaigned on the idea. When he took office, he made a great show of banning lobbyists from appointed offices. It was a silly idea. Many of the most qualified people available for government jobs had to register as lobbyists. What’s more, the people that hired the lobbyists, were not precluded from the jobs even though they were actually the ones directing lobbying efforts and footing the bill for them. Further, the approach rewarded people who probably should have registered as lobbyists but didn’t. Finally, lawyers who represented and advised clients and industries were not precluded or bankers that financed them were not barred although they were every bit as compromised by association with special interests as were the people performing the narrowly defined functions that fell under the lobbying rubric. Overall, the approach did not work out very well and gradually the administration has let former lobbyists start to slip through the cracks.

Worse, the president has let monied interests infect his administration in an even more insidious way. First, having raised more money than any presidential candidate in history, he played a role in actually enhancing what was already the most corrupting influence in American politics — the dependence of office holders on the rich. While the president often spoke of the small dollar donations to his campaign, you don’t raise three quarters of a billion dollars without large aggregations of bigger checks.

Those checks, by definition can only come from the affluent. What’s more, because campaign finance laws limit the amount individuals or families can donate, the big amounts must come from "bundlers" who work to get clusters of givers together and can deliver money in big chunks to the campaign. Naturally, those bundlers often turn to networks of colleagues at work or individuals they meet in the course of their business lives or who live in their affluent neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, these people represent only a thin slice of America’s population and often they represent heavy concentrations of people from individual companies or industries.

No candidate in American history ever raised more money from Wall Street and we have seen where that got us — toothless financial reforms, practically no prosecutions, programs that enabled Wall Street to recover while Main Street continued to suffer and, two years after a financial crisis in which America was threatened by institutions that were too big to fail, more too big to fail institutions than ever before.

What happens to these bundlers? Are they prohibited from serving because they are the direct points of contact with the money networks that have such a potential to be corrupting? Er … well … no, no not at all.

A terrific story at Politico, "Top Barack Obama donors net government jobs," pulls back the curtain on just how grievously the president has let down those of us who truly hoped he would bring change to a system in which money is the solvent that is literally eating away at American democracy. It should be required reading by anyone who cares about how this country works … or why it doesn’t.

The most striking statistic in the story: Of those, the big dollar bundlers, folks who raised $500,000 or more, 80 percent ended up in senior government positions. Here’s what Politico themselves might call the "money paragraph:"

More than two years after Obama took office vowing to banish "special interests" from his administration, nearly 200 of his biggest donors have landed plum government jobs and advisory posts, won federal contracts worth millions of dollars for their business interests or attended numerous elite White House meetings and social events …

It’s appalling. The story reports that about a third of all bundlers or their spouses joined the administration in some role. Bundlers and their families account for more than 3,000 White House meetings and visits. The secret to getting a top job? Simple: raise more money. Only 20 percent of those who raise $50,000 got in the administration. But half of those who raise $200,000 got in. And you saw the number for the real big fish … or rather, fishermen.  

The foreign policy impact? Of the one third of Obama ambassadorial appointments who have been political selections as opposed to career foreign service employees, 24 have been bundlers. The article notes that this record has disappointed the American Foreign Service Association. It should absolutely infuriate any Americans who think that our foreign policy should not be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Of course, some will say, this is the way it has always been. There’s thin comfort in that especially as it all takes place in an environment in which everything from the Citizens United Supreme Court decision to the costs of running a campaign is actually giving money a bigger and bigger role in U.S. politics — even as recent events from the financial crises to the health care debate have demonstrated how all that money is perverting our political and regulatory processes.

Go read the Politico article. It demonstrates that "change you can believe in" at least in this important respect turned out to be very small change indeed in a big money world.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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