‘They are not my people’: Barack Obama on lobbying and lobbyists

Published date01 August 2013
Date01 August 2013
Academic Paper
They are not my people: Barack Obama
on lobbying and lobbyists
Conor McGrath*
Dublin, Republic of Ireland
This article traces the development of Barack Obamas sometimes ambiguous and sometimes antithetical attitudes
and relationship to lobbyists. During his childhood in Indonesia, his stepfther was a lobbyist for a US oil company.
Obama engaged himself in what many would consider to be lobbying in his career as a community activistin
Chicago. As an Illinois state senator, he befriended lobbyists and enjoyed poker and basketball games with them,
in addition to raising about two thirds of his campaign nance from big business, unions, and political action com-
mittees. In the US Sen ate, Obama involved in ethics reform s that curbed the inuence of lobbyists. His presidential
campaign rhetoric was hard-hitting, often decrying the irresponsibility of lobbyists while he had a number of lob-
byistsinkeypositionsinhiscampaignteam.Onhisrst full day in ofce, President Obama signed an executive
order restricting lobbyists from working in his administration. He later banned registered lobbyists from having per-
sonal meeting with ofcials about econo mic stimulus projects. Both these pledges h ave, however, had unforeseen or
unwelcome consequences. More recently, Obama decided to ban lobbyists from membership of federal advisory
panels but continues to meet frequently with favored lobbyists and corporate executives behind closed doors. The
article questions whether Obamas history in this area adds up to a coherent or principled track record or whether
it simply relates a series of inconsistent and political decisions. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that
their days of setting the agenda in Washington are
over. I have done more than any other candidate in
this race to take on lobbyistsand won. They have
not funded my campaign, they will not run my
White House, and they will not drown out the voices
of the American people when I am president.
This is Barack Obamas best known quote on lobby-
ists, from a speech in Des Moines on 10 November
2007 and then featured on the homepage on his rst
presidential campaigns website homepage for a
I take it as the standard he is prepared to be
judged against and against which his actions in
ofce should be measured. First, though, it is in-
structive to review several key phases in Obamas
lifehis childhood, his career as a community or-
ganizer, and his time as a State Senator in Illinois
and then a US Senator in Washingtonwhich offer
insight into how he interacted with lobbyists before
entering the White House, so that we can assess his
current policies on lobbying in a fuller context.
Aspects of Barack Obamas childhood have been
pored over, seemingly endlessly, by journa lists and
political opponentshis relationships with his par-
ents, the precise details of his birth certicate, his
youthful drug taking, and his exposure to Islamic
teaching, among other issues. One feature of his
younger years, which has, however, prompted little
comment, is the fact that his stepfather was a lobby-
ist. Obama does briey mention this fact in the rst
*Correspondence to: Conor McGrath, 10 Newbridge Avenue,
Sandymount, Dublin 4, Republic of Ireland.
E-mail: conor.p.mcgrath@gmail.com
Only the eagle-eyed noticed at the time (Tapper, 2007) that the
quotation used on Obamas 2008 campaign website differed
slightlybut signicantlyfrom the prepared text of his original
remarks. At Des Moines, he actually said that lobbyists will not
get a job in my White House(Obama, 2007), but on his website
this became will not run my White House.
Journal of Public Affairs
Volume 13 Number 3 pp 308328 (2013)
Published online 25 June 2013 in Wiley Online Library
(www.wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/pa.1481
Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
volume of his memoirs, but it has gone largely
Obamas mother met Lolo Soetoro in
1963 while they were both students at the Univer-
sity of Hawaii. In March 1965, they married, but in
June 1966, Soetoros student visa expired and he
returned to Indonesia and its new government un-
der President Suharto (Maraniss, 2012). In October
1967, Obama (then aged 6 years) and his mother
joined Soetoro in Jakarta. Initially, Soetoro served
as a geologist in the Indonesian army, but later
found a job as a lobbyist at Union Oil (Remnick,
2010). This is related by Obama (2008a: 46-47):
With the help of his brother-in-law, he landed a
new job in the government relations ofce of an
American oil company. We moved to a house in
a better neighborhood; a car replaced the motor-
cycle ...Lolo could sign for our dinners at a com-
pany club.
In this post, Soetoro would have acted as an inter-
mediary between Union Oil and the Suharto re-
gime, which received substantial backing from US
energy interests.
The young Obamas notion of what lobbyists did
and how they behaved was not a favorable one:
Sometimes I would overhear him and my mother
arguing in their bedroom, usually about her re-
fusal to attend his company dinner parties, where
American businessmen from Texas and Louisiana
would slap Lolos back and boast about the palms
they had greased to obtain the new offshore dril-
ling rights, while their wives complained to my
mother about the quality of Indonesian help. He
would ask her how it would look for him to go
alone, and remind her that these were her own
people, and my mothers voice would rise to al-
most a shout. They are not my people (Obama,
2008a: 47 [emphasis in the original]).
And so the rst lobbyist Obama ever knew may
have left a lasting impression that lobbying was
corrupt and unashamed, that lobbyists were disre-
spectful of those with less power, and that govern-
ment relations equated to corporate plundering.
Most fundamentally, Obama sees his stepfathers
lobbying as a source of conict and a cause of un-
happiness for his mother. It is not too implausible
to speculate that the 8-year-old Obama may have
felt helpless to comfort his mother in the face of this
evil and even internalized the idea that lobbying
was hateful and wicked. If a child subject to such
emotional conditioning grows up to become a poli-
tician dependent to some extent on lobbyists, might
he or she exhibit a confused and conicted relation-
ship with the lobbying industry? Does Obamas
early experience of lobbyists continue to inform his
perception of them collectively?
An importantfeature of Barack Obamasbiography
which later resonated with his presidential campaign
philosophywas his period working as a commu-
nity organizer. For 3 months in 1984, he worked at
the New York Public Interest Research Group (a non-
prot group inspired by Ralph Nader), mobilizing
student volunteers based at City College in Harlem.
Obama wrote in his rstbookthathespent three
months ... trying to convince the minority students
at City College about the importance of recycling
(Obama, 2008a: 139), but in his second volume, he
mentioned a much greater level of political engage-
ment when he refers to a campaign he directed by
which student leaders would round up petitions
opposing the cuts [in student aid funding proposed
by President Reagan] and then deliver them to the
New York congressional delegationon a trip to
Washington (Obama, 2008b: 43). This makes it clear
that Obama was lobbying Members of Congress. In
June 1985, Obama moved to Chicago as director of
the Developing Communities Project (DCP), a com-
munity association centered around churches in the
citys South Side (Maraniss, 2012). He remainedthere
until May 1988. In his rst volume of memoirs,
Obama relates how he met Marty Kaufman,a
Chicago activist looking to hire a Black organizer to
work with church congregations on a scheme to
develop employment. Marty Kaufmanwas actually
Jerry Kellman, leader of the Calumet Community
Religious Conference (CCRC), who campaigned about
unemployment in the Chicago suburbs. When CCRC
decided to expand its work closer to the Chicago inner
city, specically into the Altgeld Gardens housing
project with its predominantly Black population, the
DCP was developed as a spin-off group, which
needed Black leadership (York, 2008; Davidson, 2009).
On Obamas third day at his new job in Chicago,
he and Kellman discussed how to empower ordi-
nary people to (in Kellmans words) start going
after the real enemy... The investment bankers.
The politicians. The fat cat lobbyists(Obama,
2008a: 150). However, in his memoirs, Obama men-
tioned a number of activities he organized and
Indeed, the most thoroughly researched account of Obamas
pre-politics life does not even mention that Lolo Soetoro was a
lobbyist, merely mentioning in one line that he secured a
midlevel executive position with Union Oils subsidiary in
Jakarta(Maraniss, 2012: 231).
Barack Obama on lobbying and lobbyists 309
Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Public Affairs 13, 308328 (2013)
DOI: 10.1002/pa

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