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.
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.
“We are all disgusted by the fact that you have to do this,” said Harpootlian, who chairs the South Carolina Democratic Party and is an Obama bundler. “All of us wanted to avoid it. But it’s become clear that if we don’t participate fully in the process, that we’ll not have the ability to get our message out.”
Harpootlian said the campaign’s super PAC announcement was a “great” development that’s been “well-received” by donors and fundraisers: “I’m glad to see the president reluctantly realizing that we’ve got to have parity if we’re going to compete.”
But ex-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said the super PAC decision is “not just bad policy; it’s also dumb strategy.” Now the head of Progressives United, a PAC working to reverse the Citizens United ruling, Feingold said in a statement that “this decision will push Democrats to become corporate-lite, and will send us head-on into a battle we know we will lose, because Republicans like Mitt Romney and his friends have and will spend more money.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.