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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.

President Barack Obama’s decision to embrace his super PAC is only the latest example of the president setting his ideals aside and resigning himself to pragmatic political realities.

The late Monday decision, which dismayed some advocates but garnered support from his top allies, came after Republican-affiliated groups reported a huge fundraising haul. It wasn’t as if the president didn’t have a lot of campaign cash at his disposal — his campaign and the Democratic National Committee far outraised their Republican rivals last year — but GOP super PACs threatened to wipe out that advantage.

Reform advocates responded angrily to the decision, which is the latest in a string of disappointments for them.

These include Obama’s decision to ditch his 2008 public financing pledge, his implementation of restrictions on hiring lobbyists that critics call largely symbolic and even counterproductive, and his failure to fill longtime vacancies at the Federal Election Commission.

After Obama reneged on the public financing pledge, he went on to raise and spend more money than any candidate in history. And before the Obama campaign’s Monday decision on super PACs, the president repeatedly called them “a threat to our democracy.”

“It’s fair to say that in the area of campaign finance reform, the administration has seriously disappointed the campaign finance reform community,” Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said.

Capitol Hill reaction split predictably along partisan lines. Democratic Senators appeared united — if unenthusiastic — in backing the president’s decision, even as Republicans delighted in calling out the president for what they consider to be rank hypocrisy.

“I don’t think he has any choice,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who noted that the president has made it clear he disagrees with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allowed for the formation of super PACs. But that doesn’t mean he should let the Republicans take advantage of them without a response. “In the meantime, you’ve got to fight,” Kerry said.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a close White House ally, acknowledged that the president has had a learning experience squaring his ideals with practical political concerns. But he said that it’s a learning experience all presidents go through.

Even President Abraham Lincoln changed his mind on things, he noted.

After seeing the tens of millions of dollars raised by Republican super PACs and their effect on the primary, Durbin said,  the president had to respond.

Some acknowledged that it takes some of the sheen off of Obama’s image as an idealistic reformer.

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