Is Obama Finally Getting Real on Money in Politics?

Is Obama Finally Getting Real on Money in Politics?

Campaign-finance reform advocates were on high alert during President Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday night, looking for any indication that Obama might finally take steps to curtail the influence of money in the political system.

For months, reform advocates have been running a pressure campaign aimed at pushing the White House to reshape its legacy of inaction on money in politics—one that’s been characterized by a laundry list of promises that were never fulfilled.

Obama’s speech signaled that he appears to have heard the criticism. The president admitted that one of the few regrets in his presidency was his failure to fix the nation’s broken political system, and he dedicated one of the speech’s four themes to the need to revitalize American democracy by reforming campaign financing, restoring voting rights, and ridding states of gerrymandered districts.

“We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections,” Obama stated. “And if our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution.”

Obama continued: “We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do.”

Many reform advocates say they are encouraged that the president intends to start a serious conversation on the need for reform rather than simply delivering glossy promises—something that he’s been criticized for before.

“He has been heavy on rhetoric and light on action on this topic,” says Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. “It’s a problem that they themselves have recognized; this is the first step to correcting it.”

With the president set to look for reform solutions on the road, groups like Every Voice, a leading group backing for public campaign financing, argue that Obama should capitalize on recent state and local wins in 2015.

“As he travels the country to push for the reforms he mentioned [in his address], he should talk about the ways in which Americans around the country—from Maine to Seattle and Arizona to Miami—are coming together to fight for a democracy that works for all of us," Every Voice President David Donnelly said in a statement.

Now that Obama has pledged to rededicate himself to reform in his final year in office, reform advocates are seizing on his State of the Union message to argue one last time that the president should pass an executive order that would require federal contractors to disclose all political spending. It’s an action that advocates have been pushing the president to take for years. And now that riders in last year’s budget deal have closed other reform avenues, advocates of change say the executive order is Obama’s last chance to take policy action.

Gilbert, who has led the lobbying campaign for the executive order, said she remains optimistic that Obama will sign it. Gene Sperling, a former close adviser to Obama, tweeted his support for the order. Gilbert said she views Obama’s rhetoric as a signal of things to come. “We look at this as a hopeful indication,” she says.

Still, others have stopped believing in Obama’s lofty rhetoric.

“President Obama's continued inaction is a slap in the face to anyone who voted for him after believing his promise to fix the broken system of big money-dominated politics,” Kurt Walters of the anti-corruption group Rootstrikers said in a statement. “President Obama must take immediate executive action to fight secret political spending—or deliver the apology he will owe the country for breaking his promise to take action.”

But for most reform advocates, an Obama executive order to force disclosure on federal contractors would go a long way toward salvaging his otherwise tarnished reputation as a champion of change.