Obama's Awkward Dance on Campaign Fundraising

The president is caught between his disdain for Citizens United and his need for cash, between populism and the importance of big donors.


Democrats have always had to go to rich people for money, but this year, it's been a little more awkward. Some wealthy donors have been turned off by President Obama's anti-Wall Street rhetoric. He's no longer so exciting. And some wealthy progressives -- such as billionaire Warren Buffett -- have vowed not to contribute to the super PACs spawned by the Citizens United ruling.

Between Republican challenger Mitt Romney's multimillion-dollar fundraising binge since the Supreme Court's health care ruling, and right-wing outside groups planning to spend millions attacking the president this cycle, Obama's fundraising has taken on a new urgency. Last Friday, the president called some of his wealthiest 2008 donors and begged them to open their wallets. "I'm asking you to meet or exceed what you did in 2008," Obama said, according to The Daily Beast, "because we're going to have to deal with these super PACs in a serious way."

An Obama campaign official said the president routinely makes fundraising calls from Air Force One, but not how many or how often. The phone was put in during Obama's term and is paid for by the campaign. Officials with George W. Bush's White House remember a similar phone aboard the plane but weren't sure Bush used it. In Bill Clinton's terms, which came under congressional and political scrutiny for awarding donors with overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom, no phone, officials said.

Here's what can get lost in the brouhaha over big money donors: Diminished enthusiasm among the 1 percent doesn't necessarily mean game over for Obama. His fundraising picture isn't bleak -- and, as the call to donors shows, he's already using the anticipated onslaught from the right to his political advantage.

Last Tuesday, the president e-mailed supporters, "I will be the first president in modern history to be outspent in his reelection campaign." Inviting backers to give as little as $3, he wrote, "Donate today to stand for our kind of politics."

Obama needs the big players to pony up, and he needs donors to give to both his campaign and to outside groups. But he also needs to protect his message of middle-class solidarity, and avoid alienating Democrats who are philosophically opposed to outside money in politics.

Obama's relationship with Priorities USA Action is a case in point. He initially spoke out against the Citizens United ruling but backpedaled to support the super PAC dedicated to his reelection. The support is conditional, however; the president, first lady, and vice president won't attend events hosted by the group, and Obama for America is not supporting Priorities USA, the super PAC's sister organization that does not disclose its donors.

Priorities USA Action has only recently seen its fundraising numbers tick up. For months, a major obstacle was a perception among Democrats that Obama couldn't possibly lose, the group's senior strategist Bill Burton said.

But that mood has changed. May was Priorities USA Action's best fundraising month yet, and the group expects giving to increase as November nears. It has raised about $40 million so far, according to Deputy Communications Director Marcy Stech.

Democrats don't expect left-wing super PACs and social-welfare organizations to match the funding of their right-wing counterparts. There just isn't the donor base, Burton said.

"I would not oversell the importance of half a dozen deep pockets on the Democratic side," added Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute. "The deep pockets have to do it on the Republican side, because the candidate has such a weak showing among the donors who give within legal contribution limits, especially smaller donors."

The president has managed to out-raise Romney so far by relying on small donors. As of May, 71 percent of individual donations to Obama were $999 or less, while 60 percent of donations to Romney were the $2,500 maximum, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. Donations of $200 or less have netted Obama almost $100 million, more than he's managed to raise from donations that are above $1,000.

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Sophie Quinton is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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