In a November 2014 Cabinet meeting, President Obama distributed white notecards with a quote on the back: “We are entering the fourth quarter, and really important things happen in the fourth quarter” (“In the Land of the Possible”). The President’s State of the Union address, and his recent political and legislative maneuvering, reveal a leader fully aware of the advantages his expiring term afford. This is, indeed, the President’s fourth quarter.
To many, the legislative agenda set out in the State of the Union, along with the President’s latest actions, was long overdue. The first signs of the White House’s strategy shift came in November with the President’s executive action on immigration. That action was followed quickly by the first steps towards normalization of the United States’ relationship with Cuba. In the State of the Union, the President called for a renewed push to close tax loopholes on corporations and raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. He touted legislation aimed at making community colleges free for all and highlighted the importance of raising the minimum wage. Even closing Guantanamo Bay, a priority the President has left to discreet and timely action, is now receiving national airtime.
The legislative agenda was indeed ambitious given Washington’s persistent deadlock and the President’s much maligned tendency toward caution. Pundits, supporters, and critics should not, however, be surprised. The President, as he himself noted, has run in his last election. Critically, he has also overseen the final election under his leadership, the 2014 midterms. He is no longer particularly concerned with raising funds, appealing to centrists, or patiently waiting for Washington’s politicians to abandon their bluster and posturing. President Obama is charting a course of his own choosing.
Yet the success of his endeavor will be greatly restricted by the very interests from which the President is now free. In a couple of lines buried deep in his address, President Obama referred to the “constant fundraising” and “dark money” that frustrate and ensnare representatives serious about policymaking. Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor and legal scholar, notes that .05% of Americans – the major political funders – effectively screen political candidates by funding those whose interests align with theirs during primary elections. Lessig argues that politicians thus develop a dependency on a small fraction of the populace for their campaign success, and shape their priorities according to their funders, not the public interest. With thirty to seventy percent of representatives’ time spent fundraising (according to Lessig), the current system is at the very least enormously inefficient and subtly biased, if not outright corrupted.
Despite conservatives’ accusations, the President is neither a tyrant nor a monarch. He, quite obviously, needs the cooperation of his fellow public servants, Democrats and Republicans alike, to push through practical and meaningful legislation. The President’s fourth quarter is not, however, the fourth quarter for his party or his fellow legislators. The same forces that exerted influence on him – money coupled with political ambitions – are as present as ever in the nation’s capital. The President can hardly expect his colleagues to adopt his current emboldened attitude when he himself proved cautious in the face of elections and funders. Mr. Obama would be wise to target the underlying political disease – money in politics – if only because his audacious agenda will, undoubtedly, be infected by it. In the meantime, hopeful supporters should not hold their breath and worried opponents can take solace in the knowledge that the status quo remains the status quo.