Barack Obama's Billionaire Problem

One complaint that has been around privately (and occasionally publicly) since the beginning of the Obama administration is that they haven't paid enough attention to "donor maintenance." Most (not all, but most) big donors are egotistical and self-important, and part of the reason that they give money is to feel important,. They want to know that the candidate, in this case the president, knows them and values their input. It does seem that the administration has fallen down on this score, and as Jane Mayer explains, it's partly a result of Obama's staff not doing the things they should, and partly the fault of Obama himself. Apparently, he just can't stand this part of the job, and that led him to do things like not pose for pictures with donors. "It's as easy as falling off a log!" one fundraiser complained. "They just want a picture of themselves with the President that they can hang on the bathroom wall, so that their friends can see it when they take a piss." I think the President's distaste for this kind of thing speaks quite well of him as a human being, but there are some times when you just have to suck it up.

The resulting question is how much of the fact that Obama is trailing Romney so bad in fundraising can be explained by this sort of thing. I think the answer is, probably not much. Don't forget that Obama has in fact raised a spectacular amount of money for his re-election; according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Obama has raised $348 million for his campaign. That's quite a bit! The problem is that Romney is raising even more; for instance, in July Romney raised $100 million and Obama raised $75 million. And Romney's real advantage will come from the super PACs and 501c(4) organizations, who which rich donors can give unlimited sums. Nevertheless, reading the following passage made me think of an old story that illustrates the politician's art:

"There's been no thanks for anyone!" the major Democratic donor says. He adds that in 2008 he gave "multiple millions" to groups working to elect Obama. But, he notes, although he has attended various White House functions, and has met Obama on several occasions, "I don't think they have a clue who I am. I don't think they even know how much I gave." He says that he has been introduced twice to Jarrett, "and neither time did she remember who I am." Instead, he says, "she seemed to think she was blessing me by breathing in the same space." Despite repeated pitches, he has not yet given money to Priorities USA. In his view, the Obama White House has not followed the fundamental rule of donor maintenance, which he himself has practiced while fund-raising for other causes: "You have to suck up!" With Obama, he says, "I don't know if it's a personality thing, an ego thing, or an intellectual thing. I just don't get it. But people want to be kissed. They want to be thanked."

This guy seems pretty self-aware, but he still wants his ass kissed. And it's important to understand that even though there are some politicians who are just naturals at it—Bill Clinton supposedly has a near-magical ability to look you in the eye and in the space of five seconds convince you that you and he share a deep spiritual connection—it's also something that can be done even if you aren't a natural. So, on to my story.

It's 1992. I'm living in California, and my girlfriend at the time is working for a congressional candidate who is appearing at a joint fundraiser where the big draw is Diane Feinstein, who is running for Senate. Since I have a free afternoon, I agree to help out at the fundraiser, so I'm sitting at the check-in desk when Feinstein arrives late, after the event has begun. Trailing a couple of people, she comes over, introduces herself, and asks my name. I tell her, and she says, "Paul, I want you to meet my son." She turns and calls him over, then says to him, "Steve, [or whatever his name was], this is Paul Waldman." He says hello with a smile and shakes my hand, then Feinstein tells me it was great to see me, and they all walk in. I'm basking in a warm glow of good feeling when it occurs to me that I've just been worked by a pro.

The whole interaction took about 30 seconds, but by introducing me to her son, she created a situation in which she and I were linked as though we might have been old friends—not only did she seem to care enough to introduce me to someone in her family, she knew me better than he knew me (even if only by 10 seconds), which led to a little squirt of dopamine as my mind said, "Diane Feinstein knows me." It was brilliant, and if I had been not a kid in his early 20s living in a group house but someone with money to donate to her, had I been asked I probably would have.

And here's the thing: Diane Feinstein isn't a natural like Bill Clinton is. Yes, even in 1992 she had already been a politician forever and had run for and served in various offices a dozen times. But she isn't one of those people who just exudes charisma. I'm sure that the technique she used on me is something she has repeated in some form a zillion times before and since, and it isn't necessarily something she does intuitively. Being able to simulate a human connection between you and another person where it doesn't really exist, and being able to do it quickly, can be a talent, but it can also be a learned skill.

And here's the weird part: in writing this I tried to look up Feinstein's son's name and discovered that she doesn't have a son. Maybe that was her stepson? The internet does not reveal. If that was just a random staffer, I'm both horrified and deeply impressed. (On the other hand, maybe it was her daughter and I've been telling the story wrong for 20 years. Possible, but I don't think so.)

Anyhow, one of Mayer's points is that Obama doesn't really think all that highly of billionaires, which has prevented him from treating them with the admiration and deference they all believe they deserve. And I think that's great! We certainly ought to prefer that perspective to that of Mitt Romney, who seems to share the belief of most in his party that wealth is perfectly correlated with virtue. But Obama is also smart enough that he ought to be able to fake it, and fake it well.

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