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Craig Frucht | Axes to grind

The President’s dirty hands

Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 06:03

President Obama, who came to Washington vowing to change the “inside baseball” nature of our political system, more often than not finds himself mired in it instead. “Washington,” he confessed last summer, “feels as broken as it did four years ago.”

If anything it’s more broken. In 2008, the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision had not yet multiplied the already−excessive political power of corporations and wealthy donors to its current, nauseating level.

Super PACs — independent−expenditures committees that may, thanks to Citizens United, raise unlimited donations from individuals and corporations — give Republicans a crucial advantage over Democrats in electoral politics, since Republicans enjoy stronger support from deep−pocketed industries like oil and finance. But the advantage isn’t just electoral: Super PACs can also use the threat of an onslaught of negative advertising to intimidate career−conscious lawmakers into voting their way on key issues. They are yet another mechanism through which the desires of the privileged eclipse the needs of ordinary Americans.

And now Obama himself has embraced Super PACs. The president’s new non−profit advocacy organization, Organizing for Action, intends to court six−figure checks from wealthy donors, which it will use to promote Obama’s agenda and exert pressure on Congress.

When liberals talk about their disappointment with Obama, this is exactly what they mean. The same president who once denounced the concept of Super PACs as undemocratic has now himself entered the business of pandering to special interests in exchange for unlimited donations. Obama, his critics argue, should take the high road and shun Super PAC funds even as his opponents embrace them.

But these criticisms ignore the reality of what is truly a desperate political situation for Obama. Despite Obama’s re−election, House Republicans have little incentive to approve anything he proposes. Any Republican who strikes a conciliatory tone must fear becoming the target of avalanche spending by conservative Super PACs during the 2014 primary elections.

No comparable threat exists on the other side of the aisle, and Organizing for America is the best chance for Obama to establish one. The New York Times accuses Obama of being a “defeatist,” and having an “if you can’t beat them, join them” philosophy. Well, yeah. Obama can’t control what types of campaign contributions the Supreme Court arbitrarily decides constitute “free speech”, or stop the Koch Brothers from spending hundreds of millions of dollars to obstruct his presidency. He can either compete or let his opponents have one of the most powerful tools in American politics all to themselves. If Obama wants to implement any of his agenda, then House Republicans must fear for their seats if they refuse to cooperate with him.

Obama’s attachment to the moral high ground cost him dearly during his first term. His refusal to use the weight of his office to pressure his opponents helped bring about historic Tea Party victories in 2010 and a debt−ceiling deal so disastrous in 2011 that the economy is still feeling the burden of it.

Liberals — including the ones in charge of the Times’ editorial page — gripe endlessly about how groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) use their financial muscle to gain favor in Congress. Only now that leading Democratic politicians like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg [Bloomberg is independent and was a Republican until 2008] are establishing their own Super PACs to counter the NRA, is there any hope of convincing lawmakers to adopt meaningful gun control reforms?

It’s unfortunate, but money is a supremely important factor in American politics, and Obama must match his opponents’ financial clout if his second term is to succeed. The future of gun control, clean energy and immigration reform are all on the line here, and that means a lot more to the future of the country than the president’s high−minded idealism.

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Craig Frucht is a senior majoring in psychology and political science. He can be reached at Craig.Frucht@tufts.edu.

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