Thursday, February 28, 2008

Go Ahead and Call Me a Cynic

Senator Barack Obama has arguably set a new height for inspiring rhetoric on the campaign trail. He has consistently called for an end to the status quo in Washington. He has fervently called on people to replace cynicism with hope. He has ardently stated his goal of bringing “change we can believe in” to the White House as President if he is elected in November.

His time in the Senate, however, should give one pause on not only his ability to make such a sweeping change happen but his willingness to attempt to do so.

In this story in USA Today we learn of Obama’s work to secure tax breaks for a pharmaceutical company that operates in Illinois, while accepting donations from attorneys at the law firm representing it (though not the lobbyists themselves at that firm). The actions taken by Senator Obama are not unusual nor illegal. However, neither are they representative of someone who is on a mission of bringing change to Washington nor of someone wanting to end the influence of lobbyists and special interests there.

We will weave this story, which we will refer to as “Obama in the Senate” with statements Obama has made on the campaign trail.

Senator Barack Obama on the campaign trail:

Over a century later, America needs this kind of leadership more than ever. We need a President who sees government not as a tool to enrich well-connected friends and high-priced lobbyists, but as the defender of fairness and opportunity for every American. That's what this country has always been about, and that's the kind of President I intend to be.

Obama on the campaign trail:

“I am extremely proud of amount of money our campaign has raised, but I’m even more proud of how we did it,” Obama said. “We didn’t take a dime from Washington lobbyists or special interest group because if we’re going to truly change the way Washington works, we need to break the stranglehold that the lobbyists and special interests have on our democracy.”

Obama in the Senate:

Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign has accepted $54,350 from members of a law firm that in 2006 lobbied him to introduce a tax provision for a Japanese drug company with operations in Illinois, according to public records and interviews. The government estimates the provision, which became law in December 2006, will cost the treasury $800,000.

Obama on the campaign trail:

And as people have looked away in disillusionment and frustration, we know what's filled the void. The cynics, and the lobbyists, and the special interests who've turned our government into a game only they can afford to play. They write the checks and you get stuck with the bills, they get the access while you get to write a letter, they think they own this government, but we're here today to take it back. The time for that politics is over. It's time to turn the page.

Obama in the Senate:

In May 2006, after the finance committee invited senators to put forward tariff suspension proposals, Obama introduced a bill requested by Astellas Pharma, which was seeking a break on an ingredient it imports from Switzerland.

Astellas employed two lobbyists with the Chicago firm of Katten Muchin Rosenman, Senate records show. Another Katten lawyer had helped the senator set up a blind trust in 2005, campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

The two lobbyists have not contributed to Obama. But their law partners and associates at Katten gave $77,000 to his campaigns since 1999, according to the non-partisan CQ Moneyline.

Obama on the campaign trail:

When big business doesn't like something in the tax code, they can hire a lobbyist to get it changed, but most working people can't afford a high-priced lobbyist. Instead of honoring that core American value - opportunity for all - we've had a system in Washington where our laws and regulations have carved out opportunities for the few.

Obama in the Senate:

At issue is a little-known congressional practice of suspending import taxes on specific products at the request of companies. Typically, Congress passes a tariff bill every two years that includes a variety of such measures.

It's legal and common for members of Congress to accept campaign money from people who have benefited from their actions. Nonetheless, both Democrats [Obama and Clinton] have promised to reduce the influence of corporate interests in Washington, even as they have each raised more than $130 million.

Obama on the campaign trail:

The American people have spoken out, and they are saying we need to move in a new direction... Are you really ready for change? Because if you are ready for change, then we can go ahead and tell the lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda are over.

Obama in the Senate:

Mark Zolno, a Katten partner who represents Astellas, said in a statement that the tariff suspension was a routine matter that arose long before Obama decided to run for president.

So as a Senator, Obama legislates out of cynicism in the same way as everyone else, in the same manner as has long been practiced. He allows lobbyists and special interests to secure tax breaks for big business. But as a Presidential candidate he campaigns on the end of such practices and the promise of hope and change.

If sworn in as President and no longer under the burden of campaigning for the office, which way would President Obama operate?

Obama on the campaign trail:

But we also know that at this moment the cynics can no longer say our hope is false.

It is not without evidence that such a charge is leveled, Senator. It is not without justification that many of us find ourselves very cynical about your message of change – about both your ability and your intent to make the change you promise where it conflicts with your self-interest.

The change you are promising to bring, Senator, is simply not something we can believe in. Not when it is premised on you being the one to deliver it.

Go ahead and call me a cynic -- I deserve it. But so too have you earned my cynicism.

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