How Obama Made This Congressman's Day

One of the president's stated goals meshes with John Sarbanes' plan to chase extremists from the public square.

WASHINGTON -- You could forgive Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) if he celebrated a little during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.

That's because when Obama came to what he said was perhaps his most important point, it sounded an awful lot like a plan Sarbanes has been developing for years: a way to make regular citizens feel like they have a say in politics again.

Sarbanes thinks the key, after the Supreme Court opened the way for unlimited spending in politics, is to boost the power of regular people's campaign contributions.

"You don't have to look far to see how deep the cynicism is that people have when they look at Washington, and the Congress, and they think their voice isn't heard here," Sarbanes said in an interview with HuffPost. "We have to put meaningful, practical solutions in front of people that they look at and say, 'Hey, my voice matters, and I'm going to step back into the political arena.'"

That's exactly what Obama called for in his speech.

"If we want a better politics, it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator, or even change a president. We have to change the system to reflect our better selves," he said.

One way he mentioned was ending the practice of gerrymandering, in which districts are drawn to give one party an advantage.

But the other was campaign finance reform. 

"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," Obama said. "And if our existing approach to campaign finance reform can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution -- because it's a problem."

The Supreme Court has made the problem worse by equating money with speech, finding that limiting its expenditure for politics by corporations or wealthy people restricts their ability to speak.

Sarbanes thinks his idea avoids that problem entirely. His Government By The People Act would give tax breaks to encourage political donations, then match those contributions with six times as much from a federal fund. It doesn't limit the big spenders at all, but tries to leverage the small ones and encourage normal Americans to get involved.

When those folks retreat, it creates a vacuum and more extreme elements flood into the political town square. And I think that's the phenomenon you're seeing now. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.)

"When it comes to politics, they've decided rationally that their voice doesn't matter anymore, so they've retreated from the political space," Sarbanes said.

He thinks regular Americans' disinterest is creating problems that have led to the rise of figures like Donald Trump.

"When those folks retreat, it creates a vacuum and more extreme elements flood into the political town square. And I think that's the phenomenon you're seeing now," Sarbanes said, speaking to HuffPost about two hours before Obama's Tuesday address.

Obama made a similar pitch.

"Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention," the president said. "And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter, that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest."

Obama appealed to Congress and the rest of the nation to get involved, to force Congress to change.

Sarbanes admitted that his bill, which has 157 co-sponsors as of now, still faces an uphill battle. But he said if people come to realize that big-spending special interests are the primary impediment to Congress passing popular legislation -- from gun violence measures to climate protections -- a powerful coalition could form to do what Obama has asked.

"Money consistently is standing in the way of progress on any issue you can identify. It is the gateway issue," Sarbanes said, adding that when people realize that, they get interested in something as seemingly arcane as campaign finance reform.

"Over time you start to build a kind of army of people who get the fact that the issues they care about -- they need to stand up and become part of this fight against big money in politics. And that can be a pretty impressive coalition. It can cut across the political spectrum. And I think over time it's an undeniable force in our politics."

Sarbanes has talked about his ideas to Obama, who pledged in his State of the Union speech to push in the last year of his presidency to make politics better and easier for Americans again.

A White House spokesman praised Sarbanes' bill, but declined to say whether it figured in Obama's plans.

Also on HuffPost:

Obama's Final State Of The Union