Obama Talks Out of Both Sides of His Mouth on Campaign Finance

Even as he has bashed Citizens United, the president demolished public financing, encouraged his own super PACs, and is now making the permanent campaign a reality.

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Associated Press

If George W. Bush had launched such a group, the coverage would be overwhelming and the criticism widespread. Last Friday, a story by Nicholas Confessore of the New York Timesrevealed that President Obama's political team is trying to raise $50 million to fund the conversion of his reelection campaign into Organizing for Action, a "powerhouse" new national lobbying group.

The story said that at least half of the organization's budget will come from a small number of well-connected donors who each raise or contribute more than $500,000. In return, those donors get a spot on a national advisory board, the right to attend quarterly meetings with the president and access to other White House meetings.

"Unlike a presidential campaign, Organizing for Action has been set up as a tax-exempt 'social welfare group,'" Confessore wrote. "That means it is not bound by federal contribution limits, laws that bar White House officials from soliciting contributions or the stringent reporting requirements for campaigns. In their place, the new group will self-regulate."

In other words, the organization will function as a de facto super PAC with little transparency. As Chris Cillizza pointed out in the Washington Post this week, the creation of Organizing for Action is no surprise. Whatever his public statements have been, Obama has exacerbated the insidious role of money in politics.

In 2008 he became the first major-party nominee to forgo public presidential campaign financing, effectively ending the system created after the Watergate scandal. Obama declared that Republicans were "masters of gaming this broken system," but his massive advantage in fundraising during the general election helped cement his victory over John McCain.

In 2010, Obama again decried the role of money in politics. In his State of the Union address, he criticized the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which legalized the creating of super PACs.

"Last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections," the president said.

Yet no major White House campaign finance initiative emerged. And in 2012, Obama gave his blessing to the creation of a super PAC to back him during his battle with Mitt Romney. Cillizza -- and Obama's supporters -- correctly point out that the president had to respond to hundreds of millions in spending by conservative super PACs such as American Crossroads.

This week, advocates of campaign finance reform angrily criticized the president for creating a group like Organizing for Action. Bob Edgar, the president of Common Cause, called for Obama to shut down the group and work for campaign finance reforms that disempower, not empower, deep-pocketed donors.

"His record for the past five years has been dismal on the issue of reform," Edgar said in an interview. "It's another example where the president doesn't look that different from Karl Rove."

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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