Ben Smith has an article in Politico that tells us quite a bit about what has happened in the last couple of years. The basic thesis is that in 2008, Obama actively discouraged donors from giving to the outside groups that were forming to help him get elected, and now he's paying the price. Here's an excerpt:
That active discouragement began in earnest in May 2008 as Democratic fundraisers began joining hands to try to take back the White House. A first effort, a 527 called the Fund for America, had boasted in March that it would spend $150 million. As it fizzled, a new nonprofit group called Progressive Media USA announced in April that it would raise and spend $40 million from anonymous donors to attack John McCain.
Then, in early May, in a conference call and at a meeting of Obama's national finance team, Finance Chairwoman Penny Pritzker told donors and fundraisers that Obama didn't want them helping outside groups. The money stopped so abruptly that Progressive Media was left unable to spend enough on nonpolitical causes to preserve its tax status and was folded into the Center for American Progress...
But the ban on outside groups largely endured, perhaps because it also fit the campaign's tightly controlled organization. Obama and his lieutenants felt — and were proved correct — that they had the money they needed. They wanted to calibrate the message, not to face the distraction of over-the-top attacks from a group they couldn't control or even communicate with.
At the time, the Obama campaign was acting rationally. They had all the money they needed, and they felt, justifiably so, that their message was working. So why let a bunch of freelancers muck things up? The problem is that by failing to nurture these groups, they left themselves without as much backup as they could have had once they took office.
We shouldn't overstate things -- there are many progressive groups whose job is essentially (even if not completely) to support the administration. And while they did experience difficulty raising money after 2008, it wasn't primarily because of signals sent by the administration but because of a widespread "mission accomplished" feeling among top donors after George W. Bush was gone and a Democrat was in the Oval Office, combined with the fact that many of those donors lost much of their fortunes when the market crashed. But as Smith details, those groups aren't getting the kind of support and attention from the White House that would maximize their effectiveness -- and that the Bush White House gave its allies.
If the administration had been smart, they would have invested some time and resources into boosting those groups and repairing whatever hurt feelings there might have been after the election. But whatever they did, it doesn't appear to have been enough. And it's when you're on the ropes, as the administration is now, that you need friends the most. It helps if you were treating them well when times were good.
-- Paul Waldman