Obama: He puts ethics on the agenda

Feb 1, 2007

Barack Obama says the "extremely good fortune" that launched him, seemingly without effort, into the top tier of American politics has helped him steer clear of entanglements with special interests and donors.

"I'm not sure that's a typical experience. But it allows me even more independence now that I'm a sought-after politician because I get to talk to the voters directly," Obama said in an interview shortly after the November election.

The Chicago Democrat, who is beginning his third year in the U.S. Senate, enjoys a squeaky clean image, in part because he has long championed cleaning up government. And that reputation is one reason voters find him so attractive, says Cynthia Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. To the public, she says, Obama appears to be someone who, at a fundamental level, "believes in good government [and] believes in the potential of government to change things, to improve people's lives and to be honest."

But now, more than ever, the public will want to know whether the senator can live up to that image — or even his own words. This will be the crucial question in the next weeks as Obama tests the presidential waters, leads his caucus' ethics reform efforts and faces increased scrutiny of his political record and personal actions.

In early January, after Democrats assumed control of both chambers of Congress, Obama got his first chance to significantly reshape federal ethics policy. As Senate Democratic leaders continued work on a high-priority ethics plan, Obama and Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, unveiled a reform wish list of their own. 

For his part, Obama hopes several of the measures he championed unsuccessfully last year will finally make it into law. "There is undoubtedly some low-hanging fruit that can be dealt with promptly," he says. 

Many of the reforms Obama cites as easy targets would deal with abuses that came to light in the scandals surrounding former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty a year ago to tax evasion, fraud and bribery charges. Obama hopes lawmakers will strengthen gift and meal bans, implement new travel restrictions, divulge more details about pet projects buried in appropriations bills and prohibit members of Congress and their staffs from lobbying on Capitol Hill for two years after leaving it.

The Abramoff scandals shook Capitol Hill and became an issue in several races. In short, Abramoff wined and dined members of Congress free of charge at his Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant and paid for a trip to Scotland by then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, who insists he was told a nonprofit group paid for the excursion. And then-Sen. Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, came under fire for inserting an appropriations "earmark" of $3 million for the Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan at Abramoff's behest. 

"I don't think you can entirely eliminate some of these problems, but you can minimize them. You can't make it perfect, but you can make it better," Obama says.

Beyond placing tighter restrictions on outright gifts and privately subsidized meals and travel, Obama wants to create an independent commission to investigate ethical lapses by members of Congress. That's a tougher sell because it could dilute congressional authority and because it scares members who remember the lengthy investigation by White House special prosecutor Kenneth Starr in the 1990s. However, Obama's proposal calls for the new outside commission to investigate complaints. The panel's conclusions would then be turned over to the Justice Department or to the House or Senate ethics committees, the bodies currently charged with researching complaints and handing down sanctions.

Obama also wants to make the legislative process more open by allowing the public to watch conference committee meetings, requiring bills to be posted online for 24 hours before a vote and making members of Congress immediately disclose future employment negotiations they have with outside groups. 

More fundamentally, Obama says he wants to reduce the role of money in political campaigns. But he says attempts to reform campaign finance law are complicated because each political party wants to gain tactical advantages in such changes. In the last round of reform, for instance, Democrats were the chief defenders of "soft money" used to pay for party-run TV ads, while GOP interests focused on allowing "issue ads" that are designed to attack candidates and are funded by anonymous contributors.

In some respects, campaign finance reform is familiar terrain for Obama. After coming to Springfield a decade ago, one of his first tasks was representing state Senate Democrats in bipartisan talks that led to the Gift Ban Act, the first major overhaul of Illinois campaign and ethics laws in 25 years. 

But now Obama is a top draw at Democratic fundraisers, so much so that New Hampshire's governor joked Obama could sell more tickets than the Rolling Stones. And new campaign finance rules could affect Obama's own political fortunes in a White House run in 2008 or later. 

Obama's transformation from rank-and-file state lawmaker to the national pundits' top-tier presidential candidate is due largely to his keynote speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. In that speech, he pointed to his biography as the son of a white Kansas woman and a black Kenyan man in his call for American unity. "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America," he said.

Though the theme of political unity launched Obama onto the national stage, his ideas on government ethics could propel a national campaign. 

Obama need only look across the aisle for an example of a top presidential contender who has pushed for more stringent campaign finance laws. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, used his credentials as one of Congress' chief advocates for cleaner elections to bolster his 2000 presidential bid. A major overhaul of campaign finance laws was finally approved in 2002, and McCain is poised as a top GOP presidential contender in 2008, should he decide to run.

Of course, there are inherent hazards to this approach. 

"Any time a politician at the federal level is willing to take a leadership role [on ethics], they undoubtedly open themselves up to charges of hypocrisy," says Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group that promotes stringent campaign finance and ethics laws.

In fact, she notes, McCain survived a brush with a savings-and-loan scandal in the late 1980s. But the scare convinced McCain of the need for ethics reforms, a cause that's raised his profile across the country.

Like McCain, Obama has made ethics reform a central part of his political career. Two years into his first term in the U.S. Senate, he has had limited opportunities to leave a mark at the federal level, especially as a member of the minority party. But he has worked with Republicans on new good-government laws. He co-sponsored one, signed in September, that will create a federal spending database so Web users can track all grants, loans and awards greater than $25,000. He also pushed to limit the Federal Emergency Management Agency's authority to award open-ended, no-bid contracts in the wake of major disasters — a reaction to post-Katrina abuses.

More to the point, last year Senate Democrats tapped Obama as the chief negotiator for their caucus in talks over post-Abramoff ethics reforms, though those negotiations faltered.

Ethics reform was one of Obama's signature issues in Springfield, as well. Beyond the Gift Ban Act, he helped push Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich's 2003 ethics reforms. The gift ban law, the first broad ethics reform in Illinois since the Watergate era, prohibited politicians from using campaign funds for personal use, barred fundraising on state property, established ethics commissions, curtailed fundraisers in Springfield during legislative sessions and mandated online reporting of campaign finances. The 2003 ethics package created independent inspectors general with subpoena powers to look into abuses by legislators, statewide officeholders and their employees. It further clamped down on the types of gifts lawmakers can receive and prohibited lobbyists and their spouses from sitting on state boards and commissions. 

Obama also touted publicly financed judicial campaigns, an idea that was approved by the Illinois Senate but languished in the House.

While Obama aims for cleaner campaigns and government, he's experienced in the rough-and-tumble of politics. He first decided to run for the Illinois Senate in 1996, initially securing the blessing of his predecessor. But after she lost a special election for an open congressional seat, Alice Palmer decided she wanted to hold onto her state Senate seat. 

Obama refused to leave the race, and one of his supporters challenged Palmer's nominating petitions. Palmer was forced to withdraw.

Obama held onto his state Senate seat easily every time he came up for re-election, but he suffered a resounding defeat when he challenged U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush in the 2000 Democratic primary. Rush beat Obama by a 2-1 margin.

Given that resounding loss, it seemed unlikely Obama would walk away from a seven-way primary for the U.S. Senate in 2004 with 53 percent of the vote. But Obama took both the primary and the general election afterward, as opponent after opponent fell apart. His two main primary rivals targeted each other. Then the candidacy of one of those rivals collapsed a month before the primary when unsealed divorce files revealed allegations of violence toward his wife. His would-be general election opponent also was undone by unsealed divorce records that included tales of sex clubs. Illinois Republicans drafted Marylander Alan Keyes, a fiery black conservative best known for losing presidential bids. Obama won easily.

In the course of that campaign, he developed a national following. The self-described "skinny kid with a funny name" became a media darling, a powerful fundraiser and a headliner at campaign rallies — all before serving a day in the U.S. Senate. But as his star rises in Congress, people outside the Beltway worry that Washington politics can change for the worse popular elected officials like Obama.

Certainly Obama is aware of the danger. He devotes a good portion of his new book, The Audacity of Hope, to considering the ways in which politicians risk becoming isolated from the rest of America. That risk, he says, is one reason he gave up flying on corporate jets and chose to travel on commercial airlines.

And Obama recalls advice given to him when he was applying to law school. He told his mentor he wanted to practice civil rights law and maybe run for office. "As a rule, both law and politics required compromise, he said; not just on issues but on more fundamental things — your values and ideals," Obama writes. "He wasn't saying that to dissuade me, he said. 

It was just a fact. It was because of his unwillingness to compromise that, although he had been approached many times in his youth to enter politics, he had always declined."

Reminded of that conversation in November, Obama said he hasn't had to bend his principles in order to achieve success. But it's clear he has long thought about the seduction of power.

After studying at Columbia University in New York, Obama spent three years as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where he helped residents of the Altgeld Gardens housing project insist on better maintenance, more job training opportunities and better schools. 

After three years as a grass-roots activist, though, Obama decided to move on. He still felt apprehensive about leaving Chicago and the residents he'd been fighting for and with. He recounts the decision in Dreams from My Father, the memoir he wrote after graduating from Harvard Law School.

"I had things to learn in law school, things that would help me bring about real change. 

I would learn about interest rates, corporate mergers, the legislative process; about the way businesses and banks were put together; how real estate ventures succeeded or failed," he wrote. 

"I would learn power's currency in all its intricacy and detail, knowledge that would have compromised me before coming to Chicago but that I could now bring back to where it was needed, back to Roseland, back to Altgeld; bring it back like Promethean fire."

These days, Obama acknowledges that others often accuse him of straying from his principles, particularly when it comes to his position on the war in Iraq. Even before it started, Obama called the invasion "a dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics." As a U.S. senator, though, Obama rejected calls for an immediate withdrawal of troops, favoring instead a plan to pull out over the course of six months. That brought howls from anti-war activists who want U.S. troops to leave right away. 

Obama says he hasn't given any moral ground on the issue.

"Ultimately, it's just a matter of judgment." He says he doesn't favor an immediate withdrawal because he's evaluating the current situation in Iraq, not past decisions.

On tough issues, Obama says he tries to listen to as many people as he can and consider their arguments. But sometimes, there's no way to find a solution everyone will agree with. So no matter what he does, somebody will be disappointed.

As a former editor of the Harvard Law Review and then a constitutional law instructor at the University of Chicago, the senator is accustomed to looking at issues from every angle. But sometimes it's impossible to close the gap between two sides.

Obama says he finds that especially true when it comes to abortion and immigration. "Abortion is always a tough issue," he says, "because you can't split the difference in a way you can in a budget issue." And on immigration, Obama thinks there's a "legitimate concern" the United States isn't controlling its own borders, leading to depressed wages at the low end of the economy. Yet he says it's tough to find solutions that aren't "steeped in historic xenophobia."

Even on less volatile issues, the legislative process in Congress — where logrolling goes virtually unchecked — results in measures that make up-and-down votes tricky, he says. "But most of the time," he explains inThe Audacity of Hope, "legislation is a murky brew, the product of 100 compromises large and small, a blend of legitimate policy aims, political grandstanding, jerry-rigged regulatory schemes, and old-fashioned pork barrels. Often, as I read through the bills coming to the floor my first few months in the Senate, I was confronted with the fact that the principled thing was less clear than I had originally thought; that either an aye vote or a nay vote would leave me with some trace of remorse."

And every vote can leave a trail of second-guessers. 

Yet even as the national media scrutinizes Obama's voting record in Washington, the senator faces heightened scrutiny for his activities closer to home, including a land deal with a campaign donor. 

After his convention speech, Obama's financial fortunes sailed along with his political fortunes. Dreams from My Father topped the best-seller lists, and he agreed to a new book deal. In June 2005, he used some of the new money to buy a $1.65 million house in Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood. At the same time, developer and political fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko bought the undeveloped lot next door for $625,000. Obama paid $300,000 less than the asking price for his property, while Rezko paid a premium for his. Obama had let Rezko know about the available lot next to his and, the following January, Obama bought a strip of Rezko's lot for $104,500. 

Before any of these transactions took place, Rezko already was under scrutiny from federal prosecutors and the media for his role as a fundraiser and power broker in Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration. Then, last October, Rezko was indicted for trying to shake down millions of dollars from companies seeking business with the state.

Since the Obama-Rezko real estate arrangements came to light, the senator has apologized publicly, even calling them "boneheaded." He donated the $11,000 Rezko contributed to his Senate campaign to charity. 

"He and I never discussed any government dealings," Obama says. "I was never in a position to provide him assistance. It was a mistake, in terms of appearance, to purchase land from a contributor."

Canary with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform says the Rezko   incident shows a danger Obama faces in light of his sudden superstar status. Obama's ability to talk directly to voters — to be a hit on both the Oprah Winfrey Show and Monday Night Football — means plenty of people will try to use his star power for their own ends.

"It's not that he owes a lot of political favors to people. It's that there are a lot of people out there who want to trade on his political capital. … So he does need to be in a bit of a defensive position," she says.

Canary points to two endorsements Obama made last year that, she says, run counter to his good-government credentials. 

First, Obama appeared in TV commercials for Alexi Giannoulias when Giannoulias was an underdog state treasurer candidate in the Democratic primary. The newcomer beat out the party favorite, despite questions over loans that Giannoulias' family bank gave to reputed mobsters.

Then Obama backed the candidacy of Todd Stroger to take Stroger's father's place as Cook County Board president. The younger Stroger became the Democratic nominee after the primary election in which his father, who suffered a stroke a week before the election, defeated a candidate who was calling for reform. 

Obama hasn't backed away from either endorsement, though he did prod Giannoulias to provide more details about his family's bank. As for the Rezko deals, the senator says it won't diminish his ability to push for ethics reform in Washington.

"I've never made claims that I've been flawless," Obama says. "But that doesn't prevent me from offering improvements."

Further, McGehee with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington says Obama's interest in ethics is one reason government reform tops the agenda for the incoming Congress. 

"Obama is the hottest commodity in Washington at the moment," she says. "Any issue he puts his name on gets attention." 


Daniel C. Vock, a reporter for Washington, D.C.-based Stateline.org and a former Illinois Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, is a frequent contributor to Illinois Issues.

Illinois Issues, February 2007