Obama's Real Job: Fundraiser in Chief

In a post-McCutcheon world, big donors matter even more in politics, which means major figures like the president will have to win them over more.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Campaigns are about numbers, so here are a few: After two separate recent events in Houston, President Obama has attended 373 fundraisers during his five-plus years in office. That's just about one every five days or so. Assuming he speaks for close to 15 minutes at each event, that's well more than 5,000 presidential minutes consumed by the dirty business of asking people for money. And that doesn't include the prep, the glad-handing and hobnobbing, the photos, the private asides, the travel.

The stats (as compiled by CBS News reporter Mark Knoller) illustrate in stark detail something everyone already knows: The president of the United States isn't just the chief executive. He's a one-man industry, a marketing machine, a brand—and his time is divided among the people's business, the party's, and his own.

At this point in his presidency, George W. Bush, a true grip-and-grin guy if there's ever been one, had attended just 200 such events. More surprisingly, as an investigation by The Guardian found last year, Obama isn't throttling back the cash engine, even though he is in his final term. He is, in fact, way ahead of the second-term fundraising efforts of not only Bush but also of Bill Clinton, another man who could work a room.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, this phenomenon is likely to grow worse as the 2016 presidential race approaches. The majority's decision earlier this month in McCutcheon v. FEC, which did away with caps on the aggregate amount of money a donor can send to candidates and parties during an election cycle, will put even more pressure on presidents (and presidential hopefuls) to spend as much time as possible raising money.

The ruling maximizes the influence of big donors, who can now write checks funding a bevy of candidates and party committees at once. And there is no better conduit to the wealthy than POTUS—or, alternatively, the candidate crowning the ticket. "The large donors care more about who solicits them than where the money is going," says Lawrence Noble, a former lawyer for the Federal Election Commission who is now with the Campaign Legal Center, a reform advocacy group. "As far as they're concerned, they're giving it because the president or the candidate is asking them."

Under the modern presidential fundraising model, the money is gathered via a joint committee (Obama's was the Victory Fund). The maximum that can be given to one candidate—a limit that will still be in place after McCutcheon—is then sent to the president's campaign and the rest to the party, which may include some funds earmarked for congressional campaign committees or state parties. Since Obama's reelection, the going rate for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser like the ones in Texas this week has been $32,400 a ticket, the most that can be donated to a party per year. Under the pre-McCutcheon rules, a fundraising event could have charged somewhat more per donor and then donated everything above the limit to other committees or candidates. But it couldn't have charged orders of magnitude more, because the most a single donor could hand out during a cycle was $123,200.

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James Oliphant is a White House correspondent at National Journal.

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