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Obama Gives In to Pragmatism

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Despite his harsh criticism of super PACs, President Barack Obama decided this week to embrace the political action committee that supports him.

But even liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) doesn’t begrudge the decision much, given the potential onslaught of super PAC money Obama could face. Sanders, who has authored a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision, said super PACs are having a tremendous effect on the race, including in the primary, where the loyalties of a single billionaire casino and hotel magnate, Gingrich-backer Sheldon Adelson, have played a major role.

Sanders said the focus on super PACs has helped clarify for the public the effect of the decision, and that has started to rally support for change.

Republicans, meanwhile, ripped the president for employing a practice he has railed against as bad for democracy.

“It seems to me he’s not much of a moral leader,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) said. “If he has strong convictions, why would he want to practice something that he disapproves of?”

And Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) noted that Obama has put his principles aside before on behalf of his election, including during the 2008 campaign when he went back on a pledge to use public financing.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday defended the decision against aggressive questions about the apparent flip-flop.

“This administration’s done more than any in history to prevent undue influence over the government by lobbyists, by monied interests,” Carney said.

He said there is a huge difference between the president and Republicans who have embraced the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and opposed legislation requiring disclosure of all donors. “I think that distinction will be clear to voters who care about this issue,” Carney said.

Still, Wertheimer announced plans to request a Justice Department probe into what he called “illegal operations” by both Obama’s Priorities USA Action and Restore Our Future, the super PAC backing Mitt Romney.

“We are going to go to the Justice Department and ask them to open criminal investigations into both the super PAC supporting Mitt Romney and the super PAC supporting President Obama,” Wertheimer said. Both groups are circumventing federal contribution limits and violating rules that bar coordination between candidates and independent super PACs, he alleged.

Some progressive organizers hailed campaign official Jim Messina’s announcement in the blog post declaring its new super PAC strategy that Obama “favors action — by constitutional amendment, if necessary—– to place reasonable limits” on campaign spending.

“This is a positive development that we have not heard, and that’s a big deal,” said Josh Silver, CEO of United Republic, a nonpartisan group opposed to corporate money in politics.

But Silver also called on Obama and Romney to explain to voters how they plan to overhaul the campaign finance system.

Some Democratic donors said the reason Democrats have not given more heavily to super PACs is that the Obama campaign has simply not asked them to do so. As recently as two months ago, the campaign’s national finance committee discussed super PACs but resisted asking donors to back them because of a “lukewarm” response from campaign officials, Democratic Party official Dick Harpootlian said.

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