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.

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."

The White House referred all questions to Organizing for Action. A spokeswoman for the group did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Aides to the president argued to Confessore that they had no choice. They say conservative Republicans rebuffed the president's first term efforts to strike compromises. They see Organizing for Action as a liberal counterweight to groups like the National Rifle Association, which has used its deep coffers to vanquish political opponents for decades.

Edgar, the head of Common Cause, argued that Obama should make reducing the influence of large donors a priority in his second term. Instead, Organizing for Action elevates their importance and cements the rise of a new type of American politics: fundraising and campaigning on an ever-increasing scale.

Confessore said Organizing for Action will pay for ads, rent, salaries, and the maintenance of vast databases listing the president's 22 million Twitter followers, 17 million email subscribers and 2 million volunteers. On Friday, thousands of Obama supporters held rallies outside 80 lawmakers' offices across the country and bombarded them with phone calls and email.

They called for the lawmakers to support Obama's call for stricter background checks for gun buyers. In the future, they will pressure members of Congress to back the president's climate change and immigration reform proposals.

Even if Obama's goals are laudable, his means set a precedent that may hurt his side in the long term. The floodgates have been opened, and Republicans will not stand idly by.

Some Obama campaign workers questioned the approach at a January Organizing for Action meeting in Washington. In a piece in The Atlantic, Nancy Scola said hoots of disapproval emerged from the audience after Jon Carson, the group's executive director, said chapters would have to raise a certain amount of money to get access to the campaign's voter database.

"We'll give you each a little grassroots fundraising page, and if you raise X amount, you can have access to VoteBuilder," Carson said, referring to the database. "If you raise a little more, you can have an office."

In a question-and-answer session, a member of the audience asked Carson if he was joking. Carson said he was serious.

Money and politics, of course, have always been intertwined. And for as long as presidents have held office, they have used every tool at their disposal to pressure lawmakers. But Organizing for Action sets a new standard. The age of the perpetual campaign - where ad buys potentially decide key congressional votes - appears to have begun.

It is naïve to think that honest debate ever decided the fate of legislation. But now it seems clearer than ever that money will buy not only access, but laws as well.

This post also appears at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.