6 minute read
Michael Scherer

At the emotional peak of his 2012 campaign, Barack Obama offered a familiar challenge to voters. “If you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible, well, change will not happen,” he told the cheering throng at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, N.C. “Other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests, the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election.”

As rhetoric, it was nothing new. Obama has always cast himself as a people-powered politician fighting to wrest control from high-dollar donors playing an inside game. And his words fit the moment. In a break with tradition, Democrats pledged to cap convention donations at $100,000, promptly disclose donors and bar corporate money. “This will be a different convention, for a different time,” Michelle Obama announced. But when fundraising got hard, the rules were quietly changed.

Days before Obama took the stage, convention planners withdrew their promise to reveal donor details. Months later, in filings with the Federal Election Commission, the reason became clear: corporations had, in fact, helped pay. Among the donations was about $10 million in the form of a loan settled after the election by Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest electric utilities and a big spender on federal lobbying. Jim Rogers, Duke Energy’s CEO and a co-chair of the convention host committee, personally kicked in an additional $100,000. The President had railed against $10 million checks from a podium partly paid for with a $10 million check.

Officials at Duke Energy and the White House say the donations weren’t about winning favor with Obama. “There is not a direct link to access,” said Duke spokesman David Scanzoni, who added that the utility sponsored the convention only to help promote the city of Charlotte. But White House records show that about a month after Rogers’ first checks cleared in 2011, he was among a select group of fundraisers invited to a state dinner at the White House in honor of Germany’s Angela Merkel. Around the same time, there were other visits by Rogers, including White House holiday parties and a meeting (along with his lobbyists) to talk about coal-pollution regulations–invites that the White House insists would have happened without the Charlotte donations.

This wasn’t the only time the White House backtracked from a voluntary campaign-finance pledge. At Obama’s 2009 Inauguration, the President barred corporate gifts, capped donations at $50,000 and immediately disclosed them. For the 2013 Inauguration, however, he reversed course, taking corporate money, eliminating the cap and refusing quick disclosure. In the 2008 campaign, he swore off cooperation with outside groups raising unlimited cash to influence voters. In 2012 his top aides appeared at events for Priorities USA Action, a super PAC raising money in checks as large as $2 million to support his effort. “We can’t allow for two sets of rules in this election,” campaign manager Jim Messina said at the time. Many of the Priorities donors, who also gave to the Obama campaign, have also been invited to White House events.

Perhaps the biggest reversal is one that is about to happen. On March 13, former Obama staff members will invite top campaign donors to a summit in Washington, where they hope to raise millions for a new nonprofit organization, Organizing for Action (OFA), to continue the grassroots campaign machine of 2012, this time in support of Obama’s second-term agenda. But unlike the campaign, which was limited to collecting $2,500 checks, this new group will accept unlimited donations. Some access is likely to follow. Donors and OFA officials have discussed inviting Obama to appear at the group’s events and meet with his top fundraisers.

Campaign-finance reformers have greeted the group with outrage. “This organization completely contradicts the warnings that President Obama gave us during his first term about the great dangers of corrupting money in our political system,” says Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a group that pushes for tighter regulation of campaign contributions. “OFA is a national scandal waiting to happen.”

Jon Carson, who is running the new effort, says the group isn’t selling access to wealthy donors. “That would be wasted money,” he says. Instead, he expects that a majority of the $50 million or so he hopes to raise will come from small donations and promises that all donations over $250 will be disclosed quarterly. The group will spend its money to further the President’s policies, he says, not on candidates and elections. “We are here to get things done in Congress,” Carson said, noting that millions of Obama volunteers have expressed support for the new group. “And we have an army that wants to do it.”

Officially, Obama continues to oppose many of the campaign-finance vehicles he has exploited. He has hinted at pushing a constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which made it easier for outside groups to directly influence elections with unlimited donations. He has also taken steps to increase transparency and slow the revolving door between the White House and Washington’s vast lobbying apparatus.

But the President has also continued some donor-servicing traditions. During both of his campaigns, he granted private audiences to top donors and bundlers, and the Democratic National Committee has maintained a National Advisory Board for big givers that includes quarterly meetings with senior Obama officials. Shortly after his 2008 election, Obama backers started a group called Business Forward, which solicited up to $50,000 corporate checks and set up meetings between the business community, including nonpaying members, and White House officials. (TIME’S parent company, Time Warner, is a paying member.)

Obama’s political advisers say they are not worried that the recent moves will hurt the President’s reformist image. “If you look at the range of Presidents past Watergate, I think we have been exceedingly cautious,” says David Plouffe, a former senior political adviser to the President. And he says watchdog criticism matters less than the support of Obama’s most dedicated organizers, who will form the core of the new organization. “The people who are evaluating the brand who we care most about are grassroots supporters,” he said.

And for the moment, backed by big money, they still believe.

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