1) David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser who was President Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, accepted a $100,000 speaking fee in 2010 from an affiliate of a company doing business with Iran’s government.
Since Plouffe’s speeches, MTN Group has come under intensified scrutiny from U.S. authorities because of its activities in Iran and Syria, which are under international sanctions intended to limit the countries’ access to sensitive technology. At the time of Plouffe’s speeches, MTN had been in a widely reported partnership for five years with a state-owned Iranian telecommunications firm.
There were no legal or ethical restrictions on Plouffe being paid to speak to the MTN subsidiary as a private citizen. But for a close Obama aide to have accepted payment from a company involved in Iran could prove troublesome for the president as the White House toughens its stance toward the Islamic republic. In recent weeks, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has accused the administration of being soft on Iran.
If you want to argue that the Obama administration’s policies towards Iran are soft because of a speech that David Plouffe gave in 2010 to a South African company, you can go ahead and do that. I think the simpler explanation is that President Obama is the man who declared in a Democratic presidential debate that he was willing to meet with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. This is not a man with gut-level revulsion for the Iranian regime, which announced its worldview and intent to the world by taking Americans hostage and parading them before television cameras, which spent the following decades becoming the preeminent state sponsor of terror and blew up 19 U.S. Airmen in Khobar Towers in 1996. President Obama is a man who really does believe, or did believe, that America and Iran could “get past” previous acts of mass murder and come to a peaceful agreement.
No, the bigger story out of the Plouffe speeches is that President Obama, who campaigned so passionately against what he called the “revolving door” between the highest levels of government and the lobbying/influence business, has absolutely no problem with it when his friends do it.
The White House assures us that Plouffe merely went to speak to the company about “mobile technology and digital communications.” It was merely his technical expertise, and not his connection to the president, that spurred MTN Group to spend $100,000, and probably about $5,000-$10,000 on air fare (how likely is it that Plouffe flew coach, or had many layovers?) and more on lodging.
Now, how many speeches are worth $110,000 to a company? What could President Obama’s 2008 campaign manager have to say about “mobile technology and digital communications” that would create $110,000 in value to a telecommunications company?
Government work and campaign work often don’t pay very well. But those who choose that path can develop relationships with powerful people – and thus, once a campaign or government worker has built up enough solid relationships with powerful lawmakers, they can cash in on the decades of effort with highly-compensated “totally not a lobbyist” jobs like Daschle’s, or through extremely well-compensated speaking gigs like Plouffe. Again, both sides do it.
But as a candidate, Obama explicitly and loudly denounced this phenomenon, and he ran ads on it: “The chairman of the committee who pushed the law through went to work for the pharmaceutical industry, making $2 million a year. Imagine that! That’s an example of the same-old game playing in Washington. I don’t want to play the game better, I want to put an end to the game-playing.”
Obama’s ethics proposals specifically spelled out that former lobbyists would not be allowed to “work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years.” On his first full day in office, Obama signed an executive order to that effect. But the order has a loophole — a “waiver” clause that allows former lobbyists to serve. That waiver clause has been used at least three times, and in some cases, the administration allows former lobbyists to serve without a waiver. After examining the administration’s actions for the past two months, we have concluded that Obama has broken this promise.