For eight years, left-leaning groups like Common Cause, Public Citizen, and the Brennan Center for Justice pressured President Obama to do something, anything about “money in politics.” Despite their pleas, he never took direct action.
They told him to stack the Federal Election Commission (FEC) with pro-regulation commissioners. Instead, he had just two confirmed nominations to the six-member FEC, and one was a Republican. They told him to issue an executive order forcing government contractors to report their donations to advocacy groups and nonprofits. He never did. They told him to prioritize legislation regulating speech by nonprofits, but when the bill died in the Senate, he did not fight to resurrect it.
Both the right and the left expected President Obama to do more to regulate the political process. Instead what emerged was a significant divide between the “reform” community and the Obama administration. That divide illustrates a reality the pro-regulation lobby would rather obscure—that even critics of the current campaign finance system cannot agree on a better alternative.
Most regulatory advocates say the ultimate solution is public financing—replacing voluntary contributions from citizens with tax dollars from the government. But here, President Obama was not only a poor ally, he was an opponent.
In 2008, Obama became the first major party nominee in modern history to decline the use of the presidential public financing system. He declined to use the program because it included a spending limit, and Obama knew he could raise and spend much more on his own. Obama’s choice to decline the program sped up its fade into oblivion. The program hasn’t been used by a major party nominee since. In office, President Obama went even further, signing a bill to end tax financing of national party nominating conventions.
Ironically, pro-regulation advocates had an easier time with President George W. Bush. It was Bush who signed into law the most significant expansion of campaign finance regulation since the 1970s. Bush also accepted taxpayer financing for his campaigns in 2000 and 2004.
It’s not as though the issue simply slipped President Obama’s attention. He faced repeated calls from prominent liberal organizations to act, and the heat turned up as the years went by. Early last year, 19 groups begged President Obama to “redeem your failed money-in-politics legacy.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) even called on the president to fire the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission because she felt the agency wasn’t doing enough about—you guessed it—money in politics.
President Obama resisted all that pressure, despite being an outspoken critic of the Supreme Court’s rulings in political speech cases like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Obama’s detractors will cry hypocrisy, noting that he was one of the most successful candidates ever at raising money. But even if Obama personally benefitted from the current system, he knew he wasn’t running for president again after being re-elected in 2012. So why should his personal experience stop him from doing what he thinks is right?
A more likely explanation is that Obama disagreed with the proposals the pro-regulation lobby was pushing. Maybe he looked to the states and saw that campaign finance and disclosure laws produce no measurable effect on corruption or trust in government. Whatever the reason, it goes to show that “clean” government and corruption are more complicated topics than political partisans would have us believe.
Neither conservatives nor liberals found a hero in President Obama on free speech or “money in politics.” When the ball was in his court, Obama did little to nothing to advance the “reform” agenda, nor did he try to roll it back.
It will be up to the new president—and the next Supreme Court—to forge a path forward. Whether that path leads to more freedom of speech and association, or more regulation of the political process, remains to be seen.
This post originally ran in The Hill on December 26th 2017.