Obama vs. the Lobbyists

A scorecard for the future of American politics


| Web Exclusive, September 2009


This piece was originally published by  TomDispatch . 

At the end of this summer of discontent, of death panels and unplugging poor Grandma, of birthers and astroturfers and rifle-toting picketers, the halcyon early days of the Obama administration feel increasingly like hazy, gilt-edged memories. The president's sprawling legislative agenda—a health-care overhaul, financial regulation reform, slashing wasteful military spending, and climate change legislation legislation—is slowly grinding its way through the halls of Congress. Barack Obama's sheen, his administration's unflagging confidence, and all the bipartisan, post-racial aspirations have been replaced by the hard realities of Washington politicking. And with the media's lens more tightly focused than ever on Washington's every move and utterance 24/7, anything said a few months back feels like a lifetime ago.

One particular statement from distant April, however, bears revisiting. The president's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, then grasped not only the magnitude of what was being undertaken, but the raft of entrenched interests lining up in opposition. As he told the New York Times:

“We're not taking on a fight; we're taking on a multiple-front fight because we've taken on a series of entrenched interests across the waterfront—from education to health care, and the defense industry, and the lobbying industry as a whole… There will be a scorecard at the end of which ones we won and which ones we didn't, but every one of those policy challenges have been initiated by us."

Never short on chutzpah, Emanuel made it clear: it was Us vs. Them in a "multiple-front fight." A "scorecard at the end" would determine winners and losers. As a candidate on the campaign trail, Obama himself regularly decried the undue influence of moneyed interests and lobbyists. Announcing his candidacy on February 10, 2007, for instance, he declared it "time to turn the page" on the "cynics, and the lobbyists, and the special interests who've turned our government into a game only they can afford to play." And on January 21, 2009, the very day he came into office, Obama issued one of his first executive orders aiming to limit the influence of lobbyists in the new administration. He planned to "close the revolving door that lets lobbyists come into government freely, and lets them use their time in public service as a way to promote their own interests over the interests of the American people when they leave."

The new White House stood confident in those early months that it could take on "K Street"—a street in the capital notorious for the density of its lobbying firms as well as Washington shorthand for their growing ranks. Tallied up today, however, the administration's seven-month scorecard tells a different story. Just as sweeping as the administration's packed domestic agenda has been the sheer force with which the lobbying industry and its clients have fought back, blocking, maligning, or undermining its progress. In a Washington version of Newton's third law, the president's actions and those of his allies in Congress have elicited an equal and opposite reaction from opponents—inside the Beltway and beyond it.

Spending eye-popping sums of money, deploying armies of lobbyists, dispatching grassroots foot soldiers as agents of disruption, the special interests have fought fiercely to derail the White House reform agenda. It's now apparent that Obama and his advisers, including Rahm Emanuel, underestimated their strength. Even if Congress were to move in all four areas targeted for reform, the concessions already made, the softening of prospective regulations and restrictions, would likely signal a series of genuine victories for those special interests.

What does it mean when an intelligent, ambitious, and well-liked president, who broke through one of the nation's most glaring racial barriers and enjoys majorities in both houses of Congress, can't overcome the deeply rooted interests that now seem thoroughly embedded in the American political system? A look at the unprecedented opposition to Obama's plans reveals why Rahm Emanuel might want to pocket that scorecard.






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