President Obama on Money in Politics

The influence of money in politics continues to undermine American democracy. Despite former President Obama’s well-intentioned efforts to tackle this pervasive problem, his administration’s attempts fell short. 

We explore Obama’s fight against the corrupting power of money in politics, including the various initiatives he championed and the obstacles he faced, such as the Citizens United ruling and the failure of the DISCLOSE Act. 

See also

Obama vs. the Citizens United ruling

The Great Recession of 2008 was still wreaking havoc on the US economy, and the Supreme Court ruled that money equals free speech. The shorthand for this landmark decision is “Citizens United.” Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit group, challenged campaign finance rules, leading to a 5-4 Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited election spending by corporations and outside groups. The ruling claimed that limiting such spending violated First Amendment rights to free speech. The decision overturned over 100 years of election spending restrictions, assuming independent spending wouldn’t be corrupt or lack transparency. Consequently, corporations can now spend unlimited funds on campaign advertising, as long as they don’t coordinate with a candidate or political party.

In a speech to the nation in January 2010, President Obama discussed his commitment to reducing the influence of lobbying, or “special interests,” in Washington. He highlighted the historic reforms his administration implemented during his first year in office, such as slowing the revolving door between lobbying firms and the government, barring gifts from federal lobbyists, and publicly disclosing names of lobbyists visiting the White House.

However, Obama expresses concern over a recent Supreme Court ruling that overturned more than a century of law, including the bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. He warned that even foreign corporations can now participate in American elections, which he considered devastating to the public interest.

He argued that, because it privileges the wealthy and powerful who use lobbying and have outsized influence on policy, the ruling will make it harder to pass financial reforms, close unwarranted tax loopholes, promote energy independence, and protect patients from the health insurance industry. Obama emphasizes that the voices of everyday Americans should not be drowned out by powerful interests.

He instructed his administration to work with Congress to develop a forceful, bipartisan response to this decision. Drawing inspiration from Teddy Roosevelt’s fight against unbridled corporate spending in politics, Obama pledges to continue fighting for the American people as their President, ensuring their voice remains the most powerful in Washington.

President Obama, in his 2010 State of the Union address, continued this criticism against Citizens United. He criticized lobbying that effectively puts the privileged few in front of the general citizenry. Obama addressed the “deficit of trust” in Washington DC, and emphasized the need to curb lobbyists’ influence. He called for disclosing lobbyist contacts and limiting their contributions to federal candidates. Obama criticized the Supreme Court’s decision, which allowed unlimited election spending by special interests and foreign corporations, and urged both parties to pass a bill to counter this issue, ensuring American elections are decided by the people.

The failure of the DISCLOSE Act

Obama was determined to pass bipartisan legislation to limit the impact of money in politics. In his speech in July 2010, President Obama addresses the importance of an upcoming Senate vote on the influence of special interests in American democracy. He highlighted the issue of big corporations, including foreign-controlled ones, being allowed to spend unlimited amounts on American elections due to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case. Obama emphasized the lack of transparency as these groups do not need to reveal who funds their ads. He invoked populist Republican President Theodore Roosevelt’s warnings against limitless corporate spending in politics a century ago. Roosevelt proposed strict limits on corporate influence, not to silence their views, but to prevent others from being drowned out.

This legislation, the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act (DISCLOSE Act), already passed by the House, and required corporate political advertisers to reveal their funding sources. CEOs or major contributors would have to appear in advertisements and claim responsibility for them, while foreign-controlled corporations would be restricted from spending money to influence American elections. 

The DISCLOSE act was never passed by both the House and Senate, and as such is not law.

In 2013, with no successful legislation passed on campaign finance reform, Obama said,

“There aren’t a lot of functioning democracies around the world that work this way, where you can basically have millionaires and billionaires bankrolling whoever they want, however they want, in some cases undisclosed.”

Obama: It’s up to We, the People, now

In 2016, during his last SOTU address, unsuccessful in taking money out of politics, Obama finally and simply called for We, the People, to do it. 

President Obama emphasized the need to reduce the influence of money in politics to prevent a small number of families or hidden interests from controlling elections. He urged for bipartisan efforts to find a real solution to campaign finance reform and emphasized the importance of making voting easier and modernizing the process.

Obama acknowledged that he cannot achieve these reforms alone and that changes in the political process depend on the American people demanding them. He urged citizens to stay active in public life, not just during election time, and to vote, speak out, and stand up for others.

The President also warned against the dangers of cynicism and division, noting that falling back into tribalism and scapegoating fellow citizens would not lead to a better future. He reminded Americans of their duty as citizens to uphold democratic values, stating that the nation’s collective future depends on their willingness to do so.

Obama concluded by calling for unity and active participation in public life, emphasizing that the country’s public life should reflect the goodness and decency he sees in the American people every day.

“We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections,” he said. “This is America: We want to make it easier for people to participate. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do just that. But I can’t do these things on my own. Changes in our political process — in not just who gets elected, but how they get elected — that will only happen when the American people demand it. It depends on you.”

“That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people.”

we the people


Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama consistently emphasized the need to reduce the influence of money in politics to prevent a few families or hidden interests from controlling elections. In his first year, he implemented historic reforms like closing the revolving door between lobbying firms and government, barring gifts from federal lobbyists, and disclosing lobbyist visits to the White House.

Despite these efforts, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United allowed unlimited election spending by corporations and outside groups. This decision concerned Obama, who argued that it would further empower lobbyists and make it difficult to pass policies that would benefit more than just the privileged few.

Obama pushed for bipartisan campaign finance reform and increased transparency. He supported the DISCLOSE Act, which aimed to make corporate political advertisers reveal funding sources. However, the act never passed both the House and Senate.

In his 2016 State of the Union address, Obama called for unity and urged citizens to demand changes in the political process by staying active in public life, voting, speaking out, and standing up for others. He stressed the importance of reducing money’s influence in politics and warned against cynicism and division, emphasizing that the nation’s future depends on citizens upholding democratic values.

Despite President Obama’s repeated calls to reduce money’s influence in politics, his efforts proved largely ineffective. The Citizens United ruling allowed unlimited election spending, further empowering lobbyists and hindering reform. Obama supported the DISCLOSE Act for greater transparency, but it failed to pass. In his 2016 State of the Union address, he resorted to urging citizens to demand changes in the political process themselves.

While Obama’s intentions were commendable, his administration’s inability to curb the sway of money in politics left a significant and lasting impact on American democracy, with special interests continuing to shape electoral outcomes.