Barack Obama, Clean Tech and the Political Quid pro Quo

Barack Obama, Clean Tech and the Political Quid pro Quo

The Center for Public Integrity has just published a long, in-depth look at how some of the Obama campaign's most prolific fundraisers have gotten loans, grants and special access to the administration, with Steve Westly at the center of the issue.

The article, by Ronnie Greene and Matthew Mosk, is an up-close and deep look at how Westly, former California state controller and venture capitalist, has landed intimate access to the Obama administration, and how the cleantech firms The Westly Group has funded -- including Tesla Motors, EdeniQ, RecycleBank and Amyris -- are reaping financial benefits at the same time.

From the article:

Westly was among guests at January's state dinner for the president of China. A month later, he dined with Obama again at an exclusive San Francisco Bay area gathering for prominent high tech CEOs, including the leaders of Facebook, Google and Apple.
He visits White House staff and, as a member of a government advisory board on energy policy, has the ear of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, whose department hands out the sort of seed money sought by companies in The Westly Group portfolio. He even has hosted the president at fundraisers in his Northern California home, and co-hosted events for three of Obama's most influential advisors.
All the while, Westly's four-year-old green business has boomed. Since June 2009, four companies in his venture firm's portfolio have received more than half a billion dollars in loans, grants or stimulus money from the Obama Energy Department, a review by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News has found.

The article goes into great detail about the level of access Westly has acheived in Washington; John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins is also mentioned as another politically active venture capitalist sitting in a similar position.

Here's the nut of the article:

Westly's ability to straddle the worlds of big time fundraising, government advising and private financing for startup companies tells a larger story about how business and politicking intertwine at an Energy Department flush with $35 billion in stimulus money.

While this is obviously an important article, and a pressing issue in the country, It's tough to get particularly worked up about it. After all, even if you label this as corruption -- something the CPI article never does -- it's about the most commonplace form of political quid pro quo that exists.

If anything, the fact that this kind of political sausage-making is still taking place only confirms that Obama is just another politician, even though, as the article notes, "It's the very cycle of money, influence and access that Obama vowed to break when he came to Washington but which persists two years into his presidency."

What gets glossed over in the CPI article is that this is an issue with a long, sordid, history. Here's the only mention in the article of that history:

Obama has continued a long tradition, tapping bundlers as ambassadors to Norway, France and Japan. More than 100 bundlers for the GOP's George Bush landed government posts, from Cabinet slots to ambassadorships to New Zealand and Portugal.

Although this article -- worth a read in full -- raises important questions about the relationship between money and power in Washington, it seems to me like the odds of making change happen now, with an unprecedentedly deep divide in Congress and yet another presidential election coming all too soon, are slim to none.

So this begs the question: After eight years of the same business as usual (or worse) from the Bush Administration, is it better to have the political process working in favor of clean energy and innovative startups instead of oil companies?