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Why Political Reform Should Be Priority Number One

Yes, we know we’re tempting fate. But we figure there’s a 50 percent chance Obama will get reelected, and in any case he needs an agenda to campaign on. So we’ve asked a number of TNR writers to explain what they think Obama should focus on for the next four years if he wins in November. Click here to read the collected contributions.

The tragic aspect of Barack Obama’s first term in the White House is that a president who was elected on the promise of changing how politics works, and whose main political passion was the crafting of consensus, was instead ground down, defeated, and made ordinary by the democratic process. As Noam Scheiber’s recent book, The Escape Artists, suggests, Obama would have been better off, given the magnitude and urgency of the economic crisis in 2009, had he simply forgotten about hope, change and finding consensus, and instead fought his way cynically through the political process as it is.

But it would be a mistake to think of process-reform as a luxury. The political dysfunction in Washington is now its own crisis—one to be addressed on its own terms. If the economy recovery remains on solid ground—a big if, of course—Obama should reclaim, both on the campaign trail and upon re-election, his original mission and passion: Reform of the political process. Pollster Stanley Greenberg concluded in July 2011 that voters are more open than ever before to thinking about economic inequality and stress as connected to political inequality and a sense that the “the game is rigged” and people “do not think their voices matter.”

Not only did Obama fail to address the political process, it is surely in worse shape now—that is, less democratic, less able to get things done—than when he took office. It’s not just that the process tripped up Obama’s efforts on health care, climate change, and economic recovery—Congressional obstruction has now crossed the line into what James Fallows of The Atlantic calls “nullification,” including blocking the implementation of existing laws. All the barriers of law and custom that had put a modest check on the influence of money on elections and legislation have fallen—most of them not directly because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision but more because of a cultural sense that anything goes, combined with lack of enforcement. Rather than moving to open the electoral process, eleven states have enacted or tightened voter I.D. requirements since Obama took office.

Obama’s greatest government-reform accomplishments to date have only addressed this massive problem on its outermost margins. He has enacted a ban on lobbyists serving in the executive branch (which has arguably done more harm than good, by disqualifying capable public-interest advocates), significantly opening up some government information, such as the database of projects supported by the economic stimulus, and backed a soon-to-be-passed ban on insider-trading by members of Congress, a problem most of us didn’t know existed (and which probably doesn’t).

Pursuing more far-reaching reform won’t be easy, of course, in part because there’s no longer a neutral ground. Every future procedural reform will be cast in terms of partisan advantage or disadvantage. John McCain doesn’t even pretend to favor reform any longer. But the president would have an opportunity in a second term—four years without the pressure of reelection—to lead a long-term educational campaign about what American democracy could look like. With a Democratic Congress, reform of the role of money in politics is not as inconceivable as it might seem—a majority of the Democratic majority supported the Fair Elections Act in 2010, which establishes a cutting-edge public-financing system, and new members of Congress will likely enter from Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut who were elected to state legislatures under similar systems and can be evangelists for their merits—which include reducing the amount of time members have to spend raising money.

Ending legislative obstruction, especially the Senate filibuster, should also be a high priority and will be a profound gift to progressive presidents and Senate majorities of the future. While there is a place for the expression of intense opposition by a minority, the filibuster’s transformation into a de facto supermajority requirement, which, combined with the unrepresentative nature of the Senate, means that politicians representing a tiny portion of the country can block anything, goes well beyond what was intended and has become a permanent obstacle to almost any kind of active government. The best hope for ending the filibuster, unfortunately, is probably a Republican Senate majority, but if that occurs, it might be worth letting them go forward with ending the filibuster for majorities of the future. After all, Obama will still have the power to veto their worst excesses.

But Washington-based procedural reforms are not the only way to change politics, and they’re maybe not even the best way. While Obama’s dreams of a warm deliberative conversation with congressional Republicans were evidently naïve, the broader public, beyond the angriest activists and partisans, has shown itself open to a real conversation. When Obama inevitably moves back to thinking about long-term federal deficit reduction, rather than appoint yet another blue-ribbon panel of Washington grandees and CEOs, he should instead launch a process that would engage tens of thousands of Americans in a guided, deliberative discussion of the choices on taxes, health spending, and retirement. The organization America Speaks has shown how this can be done—and also that informed citizens put priority on economic stimulus and the economic safety net over deficit reduction. Such a process would not only give authority and legitimacy to the resulting choices, it would have a multiplier effect as many more people have neighbors, friends and coworkers who know more about federal budget choices than the average CNN viewer.

There are also small steps that Obama can take to make government more accessible to citizens. Consider, for example, the statement most of us now receive annually from the Social Security Administration detailing our lifetime earnings and expected benefits. That’s an innovation from the mid-1990s, and it helps dampen Social Security demagoguery by showing that the program is real and its benefits predictable. While open databases of information such as, which tracks spending from the 2009 economic stimulus, are great resources for specialists or people with time on their hands, they are no substitute for more tangible gestures that can make government visible to ordinary, busy people.

American politics is long overdue for these kinds of reforms. The major presidencies of the twentieth century—including those of FDR and Ronald Reagan—not only changed the programmatic structure of American government, they also changed how politics works, often for the worse. (“New policies create new politics,” according to the aphorism of political scientist E.E. Schattschneider.) The American political process has become so dysfunctional that it has set harsh limits on our political creativity.

Barack Obama is not the first to notice this. Other Democrats have run before on a promise of “new politics.” But Obama is the first to actually win the presidency. If Obama wins re-election, he should tackle the challenge of political reform directly, aggressively, and creatively. If he succeeds, then in the last two years of Obama’s second term, we might make some real progress toward rebuilding the economic structures that will once again help Americans propel themselves into the world’s middle class. And future presidents will have a better chance of avoiding the tragedy of Obama’s first term.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former editor of The American Prospect.