He insists he will curtail the influence of lobbyists and return government “to the people.” His anti-lobbyist statements have aroused among the loudest cheers at his phenomenal rallies. He has declared: “I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. They have not funded my campaign, they will not get a job in my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president.”
Mr. Obama’s anti-lobbyist stance strikes a chord among Americans. In a recent Gallup survey of honesty and ethics among various professions, lobbyists came in last - behind even lawyers, congressmen and car salesmen. The public antipathy to lobbyists is in part based on a perception that they are pleading for special, marginal interests that are being placed in Congress ahead of the common good. Voters are also concerned that lobbyists entreat politicians to support special issues by providing large financial inducements or privileges. Lobbyists are thus often regarded as the root cause of many of America’s political ills - such as deadlock in Congress, partisanship and pork-barrel spending.
Mr. Obama has brilliantly capitalized on these public concerns by insisting on funding his campaign with small donations through the Internet. He declares repeatedly that by not taking money from lobbyists he will be more representative of the people’s concerns once he is elected.
The groundswell of support Mr. Obama has received has prompted his chief rival, John McCain, to follow suit in limiting the influence of lobbyists. There has been a steady stream of resignations from Mr. McCain’s campaign by aides who have connections to lobbyists; other advisers have been obliged to sever relations with their clients. Mr. McCain’s camp is also bringing attention to his role as Senate committee chairman in exposing the misdeeds of Jack Abramoff - the Republican lobbyist who was sentenced in 2006 to two years in prison for bribery and influence peddling. In May, Mr. McCain unveiled a new ethics and disclosure policy, which demands transparency on lobbyist activities. He has also banned registered lobbyists from working for him.
Both candidates are thus competing for the mantle of reform leader. Both candidates are indeed trailblazers. Mr. Obama led the successful reform of ethics laws in Illinois while he was state senator. Also, Mr. Obama’s ban on federal lobbyists serving on his campaign and his refusal to accept funds from lobbyists for a major national campaign is unprecedented. Mr. McCain can tout passage of the McCain-Feingold bill in 2002, which sought to restrict soft money in campaigns - despite the fierce objections of conservatives who rightly insist the bill restricts basic American freedoms. Mr. McCain has also stood against earmarks. He has credibility on an issue that concerns American voters.
Despite the achievements of both candidates, both are being accused of hypocrisy. Mr. Obama relied on lobbyists and accepted their contributions when he ran for the Senate in 2004; his current lobbying policy allows for lobbyists to volunteer to participate in his campaign; and the family members of lobbyists can provide funds. Mr. McCain, on the other hand, now bans lobbyists from even volunteering in his campaign - yet his original campaign staff had many ties to lobbyists and he is currently still willing to accept funds from lobbyists.
The real issue at stake in 2008 is not which candidate will be entirely free of lobbyist ties or which candidate can root them from political participation: Both tasks are impossible and are unconstitutional. Voters must ultimately ponder: Which candidate can set a standard for integrity, independence, strength and resolve in responding to the needs of the American people - despite all the pressures and counter pressures he will inevitably face once he is seated in the Oval Office?