Obama Calls Out Dark Money. So Why Won’t He Act?

Yesterday, President Obama traveled to Illinois to deliver a speech on the “better politics” he described last month in his final State of the Union. The main thrust? In order to reach our full potential as a nation, we must first address our broken political system, including dark money in elections.

We’ve got to build a better politics. One that’s less of a spectacle and more of a battle of ideas; one that’s less of a business and more of a mission; one that understands the success of the American experiment rests on our willingness to engage all our citizens in this work.

And that starts by acknowledging that we do have a problem. And we all know it.

That’s very similar to what Issue One has been saying: our democracy is in crisis, and we won’t solve our greatest challenges together unless we first deal with money in politics.

President Obama went on to decry the Citizens United decision and lamented the fact that only 150 families have spent as much on the 2016 elections as everyone else combined. And while he endorsed a constitutional amendment, he also said, “we’re going to have to come up with more immediate ways to reduce the influence of money in politics,” that can gain bipartisan support and actually make a difference right now (Sanders and Hillary, take note).

He returned several times to the subject of dark, undisclosed money in elections. Most people would agree that everyone has a right to know who is spending what to influence their votes. That’s why President Obama should sign an executive order to mandate disclosure of political spending by federal contractors who receive taxpayer dollars. It’s a common-sense idea that would do a lot to shine a light on dark money in politics and restore the American people’s trust that decisions in our democracy are made based on the best ideas–not on who can spend the most on advertising.

You can read the whole speech here, but we’ve highlighted our favorite parts below.

And today that kind of citizenship is threatened by a poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in our public life.  It turns folks off.  It discourages them, makes them cynical.  And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void.  When that happens, progress stalls.  And that’s how we end up with only a handful of lobbyists setting the agenda.  That’s how we end up with policies that are detached from what working families face every day.  That’s how we end up with the well-connected who publicly demand that government stay out of their business but then whisper in its ear for special treatment.

My point is, the problem is not that politicians are worse, the problem is not that the issues are tougher.  And so it’s important for us to understand that the situation we find ourselves in today is not somehow unique or hopeless.  We’ve always gone through periods when our democracy seems stuck.  And when that happens, we have to find a new way of doing business.

We’re in one of those moments.  We’ve got to build a better politics — one that’s less of a spectacle and more of a battle of ideas; one that’s less of a business and more of a mission; one that understands the success of the American experiment rests on our willingness to engage all our citizens in this work.

And that starts by acknowledging that we do have a problem. And we all know it.

But I do want to offer some steps that we can take that I believe would help reform our institutions and move our system in a way that helps reflect our better selves.  And these aren’t particularly original, but I just want to go ahead and mention them.

First is to take, or at least reduce, some of the corrosive influence of money in our politics.  (Applause.)

Now, this year, just over 150 families — 150 families — have spent as much on the presidential race as the rest of America combined.  Today, a couple of billionaires in one state can push their agenda, dump dark money into every state — nobody knows where it’s coming from — mostly used on these dark ads, everybody is kind of dark and the worst picture possible.  (Laughter.)  And there’s some ominous voice talking about how they’re destroying the country.

And they spend this money based on some ideological preference that really is disconnected to the realities of how people live.  They’re not that concerned about the particulars of what’s happening in a union hall in Galesburg, and what folks are going through trying to find a job.  They’re not particularly familiar with what’s happening at a VFW post.  (Phone rings.)  Somebody’s phone is on.  (Laughter.)  In Carbondale.  They haven’t heard personally from farmers outside of the Quads and what they’re going through.  Those are the voices that should be outweighing a handful of folks with a lot of money.  I’m not saying the folks with a lot of money should have no voice; I’m saying they shouldn’t be able to drown out everybody else’s.

And that’s why I disagree with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.  (Applause.)  I don’t believe that money is speech, or that political spending should have no limits, or that it shouldn’t be disclosed.  I still support a constitutional amendment to set reasonable limits on financial influence in America’s elections.

But amending the Constitution is an extremely challenging and time-consuming process — as it should be.  So we’re going to have to come up with more immediate ways to reduce the influence of money in politics.  There are a lot of good proposals out there, and we have to work to find ones that can gain some bipartisan support — because a handful of families and hidden interests shouldn’t be able to bankroll elections in the greatest democracy on Earth.