Pete Souza, Official White House Photograph

Pete Souza, Official White House Photograph

 

Lobbying, the attempt to influence decisions made by government officials, carries negative connotations in the United States. In the public’s eyes, there’s nothing worse than a greedy corporate lobbyist working to maximize their company’s profits at the expense of their people’s well being. However, this caricature does not reflect the full role that lobbying plays in American society. Recently, whether or not they noticed, Americans following the fiscal cliff negotiations witnessed another type of lobbying campaign led by one of the country’s most influential lobbyists: President Barack Obama.

The fiscal cliff dominated U.S. news headlines for months. The possibility of drastic, non-targeted Federal program cuts combined with sharply higher income tax rates threatened to induce a fallback global recession. Stalling progress, Congress was engaged in intense debate, with major Republican opposition over a planned tax increase on the highest-earning two percent of Americans. However, due to effective lobbying by President Barack Obama, the final fiscal deal raised taxes on individuals that make more than $250,000. In doing so, it also cut the deficit by $737 billion and prevented a slew of tax increases on many members of the middle class. To achieve such a favorable outcome for progressives, Obama followed a three-pronged lobbying strategy.

First, Obama spoke, wrote, and tweeted about the fiscal cliff to call public attention to the issue. Language emblematic of these efforts could be found in his weekly public addresses, in one of which he argued, “We cannot let Washington politics get in the way of Americas progress.” President Obama also cultivated a strong Twitter campaign that urged Congress to act swiftly to stop taxes from rising on 98 percent of Americans.

Second, Obama ensured that Republicans would be blamed for any failure to reach an agreement by framing them as obstructionists with selfish motives. As shown by Pew Research Center polls, these tactics significantly swayed public opinion: whereas 53 percent of Americans said they’d blame Republicans in the case of persistent indecision, only 29 percent would blame Obama, while 10 percent said both parties would be guilty. Polls like Pew’s showed that Obama’s lobbying shifted negotiations in Democrats’ favor by raising the Republican stakes of not accomplishing a deal. 

Third, Obama capitalized on the agreement by claiming it as a political victory. After the decision was reached, the President trumpeted it as a step to strengthen the economy and broaden opportunities for American citizens. According to Obama, as promised, Congress had passed a bipartisan agreement to increase taxes on the wealthy for the first time in 20 years. Signing this agreement enabled Obama to fulfill a second-term campaign promise even before his first term’s end.

Critics may argue that the ultimate success of the President’s lobbying is yet to be seen. Recently, The Economist even suggested that Obama could be leading the U.S. to “a European moment,” seeing the fiscal cliff deal as a short-term solution that fails to control spending or address the U.S.’s structural budget deficit. Republicans and Democrats, driven by core party positions and presidential political pressure, remain thus far incapable of negotiating a long-term solution.

Regardless of such still-to-come verdicts, all signs point to stronger lobbying in Obama’s second term. Unbound by reelection politics, Obama has already begun moving aggressively for immigration and gun control reforms. Moreover, rather than disbanding his Organizing for America (OFA) infrastructure, or handing it over to national Democratic Party leaders, Obama relaunched OFA as his personal, now tax-exempt lobbying non-profit: Organizing For Action. By using tools such as OFA to involve average citizens in the conversation and decision-making process, Obama will simultaneously keep the heat on Congress to discuss and approve crucial elements of his second term agenda. Ultimately, it’s a brilliant move by a brilliant lobbyist.