People aren’t happy with our government right now. President Barack Obama’s (D) approval rating, starting at an impressive sixty-three percent on the first day of his presidency, has nose-dived into the low-forty percent range. Our split-party Congress has fared much, much worse with an approval rating hovering around twelve percent—probably the lowest in history. Almost three-quarters of Americans think our country is on the wrong track.
But there are some tentative signs that things might be changing. Political corruption, rampant in both our dominating political parties and one of the strongest drivers of this popular dissatisfaction, appears to be on the run.
The two popular protest movements of the last three years—the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street—are polar opposites by some measures, but they share a strong aversion to political corruption and cronyism. At the Tea Party’s height, it defeated ‘insider’ candidates for Republican nominations across the country (with mixed results in the general elections). OWS is likely to have a similar impact on the Democratic Party’s 2012 Congressional nominations.
Additionally, corrupt politicians caught in scandals are not getting away with it the way they used to. Former Governor Rod Blagojevich (D-IL), who attempted to sell an appointment to Obama’s Senate seat after he was elected president, was convicted earlier this week and sentenced to 14 years in prison. It is no wonder that some cronies are seeing the writing on the wall and choosing not to stand for reelection in 2012 at all. In one telling example, Representative Barney Frank (D-MA 4th) announced last month that he will be retiring—perhaps cognizant of the fact that his constant efforts to protect sub-prime lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from outside scrutiny helped lead to our current economic crisis.
Obama will also face difficulty in his reelection bid due to this broad public backlash against cronyism. Indeed, Obama will suffer from this acutely because he advertised himself in 2008 as a break from ‘politics as usual’ and did not deliver. Many centrists and moderates voted for him because he appeared to be a different kind of politician, immune to corruption and intending to change the way things were done in Washington. People who voted for Obama on this basis were let down, and many of them feel personally betrayed.
Obama surrounded himself with the same well-known cronies, politicos, and Wall Street big-wigs he decried in his campaign. This is most evident on his economic team. The candidate of ‘change’ appointed New York Fed. President Tim Geithner—one of the bailout architects under President George W. Bush (R)—to be his Treasury Secretary. The candidate of ‘change’ re-appointed Bush’s Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, another bailout architect, to another four-year term. The Treasury Department’s Chief of Staff was a Goldman Sachs lobbyist less than 9 months previous to his appointment, and the Deputy Secretary of the IRS was the CEO of H&R Block only 13 months before his appointment. So much for that campaign promise that, “No political appointees in an Obama administration will be permitted to work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years.”
Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA 49th) probably went little too far when he claimed in January that the Obama administration is “one of the most corrupt administrations ever.” We’ve had a lot of political corruption in this country over the years. It seems to be an unavoidable side-effect of representative democracy that the system will go terribly awry whenever the people aren’t watching as closely as they should. But Issa didn’t deserve some of the media condemnation he got for his statement; the Obama administration is certainly among the most corrupt ever headed by a president who made his supposed incorruptibility the centerpiece of his campaign. Many Americans thought they were voting for Teddy Roosevelt (R) and a team of heroic Rough Riders. We got Warren Harding (R) and the Ohio Gang instead. Many of us are just waiting for the Teapot Dome scandal to break.
So I would like to offer some humble advice to President Obama, and any other politicians standing for election in the near-future who suffer from a tenuous grasp on ethics and the public trust. Clean house, and do it fast. Get rid of the cronies, corrupt staffers, and insider appointees and make a big show of doing it. Make every decision and every policy on-the-level, uninfluenced by campaign donations and back-room deals. Go back and review your campaign promises—that there would be no revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, that legislation would be crafted in the public view, that bills would be posted for review one week before being voted on, etc.—and either start keeping them or start explaining why you can’t.
President Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican) once said, “It is to me a new and consolatory proof that wherever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” For a long time, things hadn’t gone wrong enough for the people to notice. They’ve noticed now.
If President Obama and his ilk (of both parties) in Congress are unwilling to move with the shifting ground of American politics today, and embrace a policy of incorruptibility and transparency, then they will be looking for new jobs come November 2012. The peoples’ patience with ‘politics as usual’ is running perilously thin.