Obama's Push to Replace the Democratic Party Hits a Snag

The president's problem is simple: on November 6, he had a massive, nationwide campaign infrastructure which advocated for his policy priorities and values, and on November 7, that carefully crafted machine all but evaporated.

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The president's problem is simple: on November 6, he had a massive, nationwide campaign infrastructure which advocated for his policy priorities and values, and on November 7, that carefully crafted machine all but evaporated. He can give as many speeches and press conferences as he wants after winning re-election, Obama would need to face a hostile House of Representatives without all of the tools he had enjoyed as a candidate to help him bridge the most difficult gap in politics: moving people from interest to action. The Democratic Party — crippled by fundraising limits and by years of ineffective organizing — offers little hope. So in January, the leadership of Obama for America, the campaign operation, announced that its infrastructure would transition to become Organizing for Action, focusing on engaging activists on behalf of the president's issues.

But organizing isn't cheap. The Obama campaign raised over a billion dollars to win last year. So the new OFA was created as a 501(c)(4), a non-profit organization which under Internal Revenue Service rules can raise as much money as it wants to participate in issue-based political campaigns and to lobby for legislation aimed at the "promotion of social welfare." (A traditional non-profit is a 501(c)(3), which has far stricter limits on lobbying or taking positions on political issues.)

The new OFA has prompted three complaints from detractors and the media:

First, that its promotion of social welfare is debatable. Forming a 501(c)(4) to organize on political issues isn't a new tactic on the national stage. Organizations like the conservative Americans for Prosperity are also (c)(4)s. Whether or not the rule is too loose for all parties is one thing. Whether or not OFA alone is exploiting the loophole is another.

Second, that it suggests the president is entering a permanent state of political campaigning. Last week, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine raised this complaint last week, suggesting that "ads run against me are not what I would call constructive dialogue." In his interview on Fox News this weekend, Mitt Romney — who knows better than most the effectiveness of Obama's campaign team — also criticized the president's campaign-like tactics.

Third, and most seriously, that the president is selling access to the White House. In February, the The Times outlined how donors might gain access to the president.

Next month, Organizing for Action will hold a “founders summit” at a hotel near the White House, where donors paying $50,000 each will mingle with Mr. Obama’s former campaign manager, Jim Messina, and Mr. Carson, who previously led the White House Office of Public Engagement.

Giving or raising $500,000 or more puts donors on a national advisory board for Mr. Obama’s group and the privilege of attending quarterly meetings with the president, along with other meetings at the White House. Moreover, the new cash demands on Mr. Obama’s top donors and bundlers come as many of them are angling for appointments to administration jobs or ambassadorships.

Conservatives were quick to criticize the move. Karl Rove's American Crossroads (itself a (c)(4)) created this ad.

Over the weekend, both The Washington Post and The New York Times editorial boards piled on, blasting the apparent pay-for-access move. The Post wrote:

Big money given in secret is a corrupting influence on our politics. But it is even more worrisome for a sitting president to be fielding such a group. It seems to be an open invitation to donors who want access and influence on policy decisions.

The Times echoed the sentiment:

It is understandable that the White House might want to make use of its campaign voter list, mobilizing supporters when it needs help getting bills through Congress. The group’s leaders say they will be holding rallies on important topics ranging from immigration to climate change, and note that this kind of organizing is expensive. But the frantic pursuit of big money makes it impossible to call this a grass-roots effort.

Any corporation with a matter pending before the administration can give lavishly to Organizing for Action as a way of currying favor, knowing that the West Wing will take note.

Today, the president's press secretary Jay Carney defended the organization, with debatable success. Politico excerpted Carney's response.

There is no "set price" to meet with President Obama, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday amid continued outcry over the role of Organizing for Action, the outside group supporting the president's agenda.

"Any notion that there is a set price for a meeting with the president of the United States is just wrong," Carney said during his daily briefing.

Since OFA is intended to back the president's agenda, it makes sense that Obama would meet with the group, Carney said. "As anyone would expect, the president would likely meet with their representatives to discuss his agenda."

Carney also made clear (as had OFA's Jim Messina before him) that the organization would disclose its donors, despite IRS rules allowing them to remain private.

The issue of access is the most dangerous for the president — but it also seems the most likely to be abandoned. A defense of the broader issue of unlimited fundraising itself may be tough to mount, given that it's been defeated once already. Until 2002, the Democratic and Republican parties could accept unlimited "soft" contributions that could be used for non-campaign purposes. The passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as McCain-Feingold), ended the fundraising practice. Meaning that the Obama team — after building an organizing infrastructure outside of the Democratic Party's disintegrated and ineffectual remnants — finds itself having to rebut arguments that the party already lost.

That said, there's little suggestion that Organizing for Action will abandon its fundraising and advocacy plans, barring public outcry. Happily for the organization, it has the perfect tool in place for combatting such a negative response. Itself.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.