President Obama's Progress in Government Ethics

By Painter, Richard W. | Constitutional Commentary, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

President Obama's Progress in Government Ethics

Painter, Richard W., Constitutional Commentary

Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to bring ethics to government. He has delivered on this promise by making exceptional progress in several key areas, including curtailing the revolving door between the private sector and his Administration. On January 21, 2009, one day after becoming President, he signed an Executive Order that imposed ethics rules on incoming and outgoing political appointees that were stricter than those in any previous administration. (1) The White House has also taken strong steps to curtail the influence of lobbyists in the Administration.

President Obama's laudable ethics agenda, however, faces two major impediments. One is the explosive growth in the size and responsibilities of government, an acceleration of a trend already established during the terms of William Clinton and George W. Bush. As explained below in more detail, big government and government ethics are a difficult combination. The second trend, which has also accelerated during the past few decades, is an increased entanglement of partisan politics with the everyday work of Executive Branch officials, including the White House staff. Partisan political activity by government officials provides access to government officials to persons who pay for access with campaign contributions. Lobbyists and other paying customers will have undue influence unless Executive Branch involvement in partisan politics is curtailed sharply. So far, President Obama has not done this.


The President's accomplishments in ethics are significant.

First, despite some initial vetting problems with appointees at the outset, the President avoided what could have been disastrous appointments if he had indiscriminately brought into his administration people from the Chicago political machine that had supported him during his formative years in Illinois politics. Despite the President's good intentions, there was reason to worry about having a newly elected President who came from a city and state with so much corruption. It took only weeks for Illinois officials to devise a scheme to sell the President's Senate seat to the highest bidder, leading to the arrest and indictment of Governor Blagojevich. Bipartisan corruption in Illinois has put just about everything up for sale, including truck drivers licenses under Governor George Ryan (he is now serving a prison sentence for corruption) to admission to the University of Illinois (an "independent" commission appointed by Governor Quinn and headed by former judge and Chicago area Congressman Abner Mikva conveniently blamed this scheme on University officials rather than on the politicians who demanded favors from a University dependent on them for financial support). Illinois politics has for a long time been a disaster area for government ethics, and if the President had brought any of this baggage with him to Washington, his administration would have been disastrous as well.

He did not do so. Although the President brought some people from Illinois to Washington, he avoided the more sordid elements in state politics and turned instead to persons who, like himself, keep a respectable distance from corruption. Former Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff, Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan as Education Secretary and Valerie Jarrett as White House director of Intergovernmental Affairs are a few of his better home-state picks.

President Obama will probably be pressured by the Illinois political establishment for additional appointments throughout his administration. The pressure will probably extend to appointments for relatives because, for a long time, Illinois politicians--including otherwise conscientious politicians--have viewed political office and judgeships as a birthright for themselves and their family (the Daley family, the Madigan family and others, for example). It is unclear what if any leverage Illinois politicians will have with the President when the State clearly will support him in 2012. …

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