“I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests," President Barack Obama said during his 2010 State of the Union, staring down the six Supreme Court Justices in attendance. It was a week after the high court issued its decision on Citizens United. That landmark ruling—followed shortly by a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision in Speechnow.org v. Federal Elections Commission that removed the $5,000 donation limit for political-action committees (PACs)—led to the development of super PACs that can receive unlimited campaign donations as long as they do not directly coordinate with the candidates on messaging and ad creation.
The president spent much of the following year bemoaning new routes for corporations to buy political influence in elections and investing his political capital in the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that would have instituted additional disclosure requirements but done little to stem the flow of unchecked money. The efforts were to no avail as Republican senators filibustered the bill. Senior Obama officials viewed the aftermath of Citizens United as a "powerful rhetorical opportunity to decry the influence of corporate money in politics" according to a White House memo obtained by The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza. “Perhaps more than in any other area, it is essential that we use the [State of the Union] to reclaim the high-ground on challenging the status quo in Washington," the memo said.
Two years later, the Obama team is no longer challenging the status quo but joining it. Monday, the president’s campaign announced that it would begin coordinating with Priorities USA Action, a super PAC formed by former White House staffers Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney. The group is modeled after American Crossroads, a super PAC founded by Karl Rove, which funded a wave of anti-Democrat ads in the 2010 elections. Officials—both from Obama for America as well as from the White House—will attend Priorities USA events, though they will not directly solicit funds—a thin illusion for functions clearly designed as fundraisers.
In conference calls with reporters Tuesday, Obama campaign officials argued that the decision came as a response to the fundraising prowess of Crossroads and other conservative super PACs. They claimed that Rove and the Koch brothers have conspired to raise $500 million in opposition to Obama’s re-election, and said that they couldn’t enter into the general election with “one arm tied behind our back.”
The announcement clarified that the president, first lady, and vice president would not attend any super PAC events, but that leaves a host of other prominent Obama figures—everyone from White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—as potential surrogates, whose role at these events remains open to speculation. The Obama campaign did not respond to requests for clarification on who would take part in the effort to boost Priorities USA.
It was clearly a reluctant decision on the part of the Obama campaign, one the administration has not attributed personally to the president. Over the course of the two conference calls, senior campaign officials sidestepped reporters’ questions about how the president reached the decision. “We're not going to get into the specifics of discussions with the president except to say that this discussion has been an evolving discussion over time as the Republican primary contest moves through its cycle,” a campaign official said.
The announcement Monday reflects not a total reversal but a gradual shift in Obama’s views since he teamed up with good-governance king Russ Feingold in the Senate to pass legislation requiring lobbyists to disclose bundled contributions. As a Senator, Obama frequently discussed the corrupting influence of campaign financing, a commitment he carried into the 2008 primaries, rejecting any donations from registered lobbyists. But while he had pledged early in the campaign to “aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election,” he tossed the pledge aside, becoming the first candidate to opt out of the system for the general election. “It's not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections," Obama said in 2008. "But the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system.”
Until this week’s super PAC announcement, Obama had fulfilled another important promise: He had not accepted any funds from registered lobbyists. Priorities USA, however, takes numerous donations from registered lobbyists. The New York Times reported earlier this year that lobbyists from a who’s-who list of Wall Street banks has chipped in funds for Priorities: “$5,000 donors include such registered lobbyists as Steve Elmendorf (Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America), John M. Gonzalez (MasterCard, Deutsche Bank AG and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association), Joel Johnson (Toyota, Ernst & Young and the American Bankers Association), and David Castagnetti (the American Petroleum Institute, the Corrections Corporation of America and Koch Industries).”
When asked about Priorities USA’s lobbyist money during the conference call yesterday, an Obama official denied responsibility for the super PAC's actions. “On lobbyist contributions to Priorities, that’s not a decision that we can make,” the official said. “That’s a decision for Priorities—we obviously don’t control what they do.” It’s the same argument that Mitt Romney has used in debates to explain away his ties to Restore Our Future and its attacks on his primary opponents. “In order to believe that the Super PACs supporting President Obama and Mitt Romney are ‘independent’ from the presidential campaigns they are supporting, you must believe in the tooth fairy,” Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonpartisan campaign-finance reform group Democracy 21, wrote yesterday.
In the past, Obama has made the same argument. "A group can hide behind a phony name like Citizens for a Better Future, even if a more accurate name would be Corporations for Weaker Oversight," he said when the DISCLOSE Act was debated in Congress. "The only people who don't want to disclose the truth are people with something to hide," Obama continued in the video address.
The Obama campaign says that it is only keeping up with the machinations of its likely Republican opponent. (Romney himself has attended Restore Our Future campaign events.) But by saying that White House officials and cabinet members would speak at Priorities USA gatherings, the Obama campaign has opened up new avenues for political corruption, granting wealthy donors even greater sway in the operations of our government. The Restore Our Future funders are likely donating their millions in the hope that a day might come when their contributions will grant them sway on policy decisions. It would be a similar situation if the Obama team had decided to send only Obama for America (the president’s official re-election campaign) officials to Priorities USA meetings. But they’ve taken it a step too far by including members of the White House and cabinet, politicians who have direct power over policy today. I’m sure there are more than enough Wall Street banks who think $50,000 isn’t too onerous a fee to get some personal time with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, or a coal company that would love to plop down $10,000 to speak with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
The super PAC announcement offered the slimmest of olive branches to campaign-finance advocates. "The President favors action—by constitutional amendment, if necessary—to place reasonable limits on all such spending," Campaign Manager Jim Messina wrote in a press release. Since the Supreme Court would likely overturn any normal congressional bills to restrict campaign spending, progressive groups such as MoveOn have agitated for an amendment as the only remedy. Several Democratic senators introduced such legislation earlier this year. But when pushed by reporters on the call, the officials indicated that the amendment talk was purely a hypothetical, not a measure that Obama would tout on the campaign trail this fall. “Should a constitutional amendment be necessary to reverse the worst aspect of the Citizens United law, he would support those efforts,” one official said. “But ultimately as we look at what’s possible this year, we recognize the reality of what the Republican Congress will and won’t support.”
Liberals who bemoan the lack of change in the Obama presidency miss the institutional barriers that make any culture change in Washington a herculean task. A resistant minority in Congress and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court have made it nigh impossible for Obama to pass many of his reform-agenda items. The decision to cooperate with super PACs is an exception, one that was the Obama campaign's to make alone.