Saturday, March 17, 2007

Barack Obama is a structuralist and a reformer

One of the main reasons I support Senator Obama's presidential campaign is that, at heart, he's a structuralist. He understands that the structure of our politics matters, and while he is currently spending a lot of time trying to change the culture of our politics (replacing a Bush-style approach of muscling through an agenda with a bare majority of votes with honest attempts to reach consensus with most legislators), he understands that the rules of the political game dramatically influence policy outcomes.

His latest move to find a way to keep the 1970s-era presidential public funding law relevant is instructive. Most big time presidential campaigns have the ability to raise far more private money than the amount of public funding available to campaigns in both the primary and general elections. More resources means a more powerful campaign, so there isn't much incentive to forgo raising the private dollars (and accept the obligations, however tenuous or implicit inherent in those donations) to embrace the relative political freedom of public funds.

Instead of merely noting the sad demise of public funding, Senator Obama came up with a novel work-around to his desire to remain competitive with his rivals in the primary campaign: he asked the Federal Election Commission if he could raise private funds for the general election campaign now (as all of the big time campaigns are doing), with the condition that, if he does win the nomination he can still decide to take public funding and can send the money back to the donors.

Very clever! And even though a few fussy D.C. reform organizations submitted comments opposing Senator Obama's move, the Federal Elections Commission granted Senator Obama's request on March 1st. Almost immediately, Senator McCain's campaign applauded Senator Obama and promised to match Senator Obama in foregoing public private funds for the general election if McCain wins the Republican nomination.

No other campaign has expressed any sentiment in joining Senators Obama and McCain in the general election.

Although the Sun-Times described his personal investment policy as a "stumble" in 60 point font on the front page, I found it an innovative (if unsuccessful) attempt to address the ethical concerns of leveraging his public position for private gain while retaining the ability to steer his private investments away from corporation engaging in unethical activities in pursuit of the bottom line. In other words, he recognized that it's not enough for public officials to let someone else make all their investment decisions -- they also need to be responsible for using the power of private capital to influence corporate activities. Thus, he created a quasi-blind trust. While the effort did not pan out as hoped, his attempt to find a better structure for private investments by public officials deserves applause, not knee-jerk denunciations.

One of my lines during Senator Obama's primary election is that he would join Senators McCain and Feingold as the leading reformers in the nation, working to reduce the persistent clout of corporations and wealthy people who skew our public policies towards enriching the rich and impoverishing the rest of us. His innovative and intelligent move to update presidential public funding to stay relevant with modern conditions is bolstering his reputation as one of the republic's leading reformers.

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