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Will President Obama Leave a Failed Legacy on Secret Money in Politics?

(Photo: Joe Crimmings/cc/flickr)

President Barack Obama has said he ran for office because he believed "so strongly that the voices of ordinary Americans were being drowned out by the clamor of a privileged few in Washington."

Obama's popularity among the Democratic base in '08 and '12 was due in large part to his seemingly sincere promises to fix a corrupt political system. In fact, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg argues persuasively that running on a platform to fundamentally reform money in politics so government works for the middle class is also the Democrats best hope for electoral success in 2016.

Obama even famously blasted the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision at his 2010 State of the Union address with members of the court looking on, saying "I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities."

But any politician can draw applause lines deriding special interests. Even Ted Cruz, a fanatic supporter of eliminating all limits on the amount of money in elections, frequently calls out our "government of the lobbyists, by the lobbyists, and for the lobbyists."

Elected leaders should be measured on what they do, not just what they say.

During Obama's time in office, his administration has taken no action to actually rebalance the system so candidates are accountable to ordinary Americans, not just wealthy special interests.

As the president enters his final 14 months, he would do well to consider how history will remember him on this issue. Does he want to be remembered as the worst president on money in politics since Nixon, according to leading election law expert Rick Hasen? Or will he be remembered as the leader who chipped away at Citizens United and paved the way for bigger, bolder solutions at the local, state, and national level?

It's not news that wealthy secret donors have spent unprecedented amounts of money to influence elections during President Obama's tenure. In 2012, federal elections saw a record $308.7 million in dark money. 2016 is shaping up to be dramatically worse -- we've already seen ten times as much dark money spent in the 2016 elections as at this point in the 2012 cycle.

But far from being hamstrung by a dysfunctional and divided Congress, President Obama has numerous tools at his disposal to fight dark money.

First and foremost, the president can and should immediately issue an executive order requiring large federal contractors to disclose their political spending -- a measure which would cover 70% of the Fortune 100 and serve as a valuable protection against pay-to-play corruption.

Many agencies within the administration also have existing authority to require disclosure of political spending, including the SEC, FCC, IRS, and FEC, even if the Obama appointees leading those agencies have thus far taken no action to close dark money loopholes.

These are mainstream ideas -- 71% of Americans, including 66% of Republicans, support President Obama issuing an executive order to fight secret money. A wide range of leaders in Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid last week, have called on him to sign it. Forty-four out of 46 Democrats in the Senate have called on the SEC to move forward on political disclosure. Yet the President and his appointees have done nothing.

For nearly 6 years after Citizens United now, the country has asked President Obama to take action.

With a new coalition, including groups like Rootstrikers, CREDO Action, Daily Kos, and MayDay PAC, we're launching a campaign at demanding that he end his inaction once and for all. And by integrating with the White House's 'We the People' petition platform, once we reach 100,000 signatures the White House will be on the hook to publicly respond.

Our coalition is demanding that, before his State of the Union address, President Obama issue an executive order requiring political disclosure by federal contractors -- to take effect before July 4th, 2016 -- publicly call on his appointees to the SEC, IRS, and FCC to fight dark money, and replace the FEC commissioners on expired terms with nominees who will enforce the law.

We've seen Obama take bold executive action to live up to principles he campaigned on, from blocking the Keystone Pipeline to using his bully pulpit to support true Net Neutrality.

Now, the president has a clear choice: he can take action to fulfill his promises of weakening the influence of big money in politics -- or he can cast himself as just another politician who campaigned on empty promises of cleaning up a corrupt system.

We hope President Obama makes the right choice and fixes this stain on his legacy before it's too late.

Zephyr Teachout

Zephyr Teachout

Zephyr Teachout ran for governor of New York State in 2014. She teaches constitutional and property law at Fordham University Law School. Her latest book, Corruption in America, is a history of the corrosive influence of money in politics.

David Segal

David Segal was a Democratic Rhode Island State Representative until January 2011, and previously served on the Providence City Council as a member of the Green Party. He since co-founded Demand Progress, a million-member civil liberties and civil rights organizing outfit, where he serves as executive director.

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