President Obama has long received deserved praise for his way with words. So it's appropriate that he's taking hits because of poorly chosen campaign verbiage.
Obama the speaker is impressive not simply because he can effectively deliver a speech but because he has the distinction among many politicians of frequently treating his audience as if they are adults, capable of understanding nuance and complexity in issues rather than simply communicating in sound bites. Perhaps the best example of this came a year ago in Philadelphia. Obama's campaign was buffeted by the racially charged pronouncements of the combustible and offensive Rev. Jeremiah Wright (remember him?). So on March 18, Obama spoke about race, addressing that sensitive issue with honesty and complexity—and bravery. His speech could easily have become
a rich source for attack ads: "Did I ever hear [Wright] make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. . . . As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. . . . I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community."
But like any politician, Obama sometimes did indulge in bumper-sticker rhetoric. This was especially true regarding the culture of Washington, D.C., specifically on lobbying and earmarking.
Lobbyists "won't find a job in my White House," Obama told voters. It's an easy sound bite. What better target exists in Washington than the soulless lobbyists, trading on their influence for shady, well-heeled special interests whose agendas must be nefarious or unpopular (why else would they need to hire lobbyists?).
But the reality of lobbyists is different from the caricature. Yes, there are Jack Abramoffs, cynically and criminally maneuvering through Washington. And there are a much larger number of influence-peddlers who work within the law but still animate the image, hired guns who will take on the most detestable causes in pursuit of cash. But there are also lobbyists for commendable causes: saving the environment, funding schools, gun rights, gun control, and so on. The Boy Scouts spent $180,000 lobbying last year (on topics including defense, mining, and postal issues), for example. You may not realize it, but somewhere in Washington right now lobbyists are advocating your interest, because your city, county, company, or a trade association for your industry hired them.
And as a very practical matter, many lobbyists have the sort of skill sets attractive not only to special interests and major corporations but also to incoming presidential administrations. They know how D.C. works, understand policy, and grasp how to get results from the bureaucracy. Which is why, for example, former Raytheon lobbyist Bill Lynn was appointed to be deputy secretary of defense. It's why Jocelyn Frye joined Michelle Obama's office after lobbying for the National Partnership for Women and Families, and Cecilia Muñoz became the president's chief liaison to the Latino community after lobbying for the Hispanic advocacy organization National Council of La Raza. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's chief of staff was a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs. A dozen White House staffers were recent former lobbyists, National Journal reported as Obama assumed office.
None of which is to say that lobbying should disqualify any of these people from the administration—except that President Obama did say it. And he will continue to catch flak for it when more realistic rhetoric about lobbying in Washington would have saved him grief.
Obama has also received vocal criticism for his failure to move expeditiously on his campaign pledge to deal with pork-barrel earmarks. "Absolutely, we need earmark reform," Obama said in the first presidential debate. "And when I'm president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely." Obama defenders point out he said "reform," not elimination. Here nuance without explanation comes across less as mature evaluation than Clintonian weasel-wording. Apparently, it depends on what your definition of "unwisely" is.
And while President Obama, with great fanfare, forbade earmarks from his stimulus package, he did not "go line by line" through the $410 billion spending bill that Congress passed this week and that includes roughly 8,500 earmarks costing $7.7 billion. Republicans, convinced that what Americans yearn for in these troubled economic times is a balanced federal budget, have seized upon the bill, insisting that Obama should veto it or be exposed as a rank hypocrite.
Obama last week announced a new plan to reform earmarking, addressing his subject with nuance. "Done right, earmarks give legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their district, and that's why I have opposed their elimination," he said. "But the fact is that, on occasion, earmarks have been used as a vehicle for waste, fraud, and abuse."
Unveiling his agenda, he warned that "neither I nor the American people will accept anything less." Perhaps. But earmarking was a cutting political issue, John McCain would be in the White House. Obama was wise not to pick a fight over earmarks, as it would just have caused problems for the rest of his herculean agenda while generating little substantive political return.
We'll see if his sober explanation and mild reforms pass. But if Congress
proves intransigent, his declaration about what is acceptable to himself and the voters may blow up in his face.