Senior White House adviser David Plouffe is the only member of President Barack Obama’s administration to attend a fundraiser for a pro-Obama super PAC so far, despite an announcement in February that White House officials and Cabinet members would participate.
Plouffe, who ran Obama’s 2008 campaign, is a natural pick to make the pitch for Priorities USA Action, the super PAC started by former White House aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney. But, according to an administration source, no other officials have hit the road in the past five months to help the super PAC drum up the millions needed to counter a fundraising onslaught from those aiding presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Obama reluctantly embraced the super PAC in February, even though he and most Democrats want to outlaw the groups. But even then, the embrace came with a host of caveats that suggested the president remains uncomfortable with the idea.
Campaign manager Jim Messina announced the policy then. “With so much at stake, we can’t allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm,” Messina said in February. “What this change means practically: Senior campaign officials as well as some White House and Cabinet officials will attend and speak at Priorities USA fundraising events.”
The administration declined to comment on the record, but an administration official said there has been no reconsideration of the policy announced in February and it still stands.
And the Obama campaign made clear that it still fully supports the political action committee.
“We have been crystal clear in expressing our support for Priorities USA Action and its mission: re-electing the President,” campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said. “Campaign and White House officials have participated in and will continue to participate in their events across the country.”
In addition to Plouffe, Messina and senior campaign strategist David Axelrod have attended super PAC fundraisers, including events in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C.
And while other officials could yet be deployed in the quest for cash, the president himself will remain a no-show.
The day after the policy was announced, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney faced a barrage of questions about the president’s awkward embrace of the super PAC.
A clearly uncomfortable Carney emphasized what administration officials — and the president — would not do. The officials would appear only at fundraising events of groups that disclose their donors, Carney said, and would not directly ask for money, even though they would be attending and speaking at the events.
Then there was the kicker: Obama himself, by far his own most powerful rainmaker, wouldn’t go. Nor would first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden nor Jill Biden. Carney didn’t give an explanation, but the inference seemed clear — super PAC glad-handing was beneath the president and the vice president, but perhaps not, say, the secretaries of Labor and Education.
Romney’s super PACs don’t have that problem. Romney himself has met with mega-donors such as casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson — who is expected to contribute tens of millions to pro-Romney super PACs — and he has attended super PAC events.
Priorities USA Action, which isn’t allowed to coordinate with the campaign, did not respond to requests for comment. Its finances have improved from a very slow start. It raised $4 million in May and said earlier it was on pace to exceed that in June. It’s spent millions attacking Romney’s years at Bain Capital in battleground states and was featured in a lengthy profile in Sunday’s New York Times.
But its goal of raising $100 million is well below the various pro-Romney super PACs, which aim to spend more than $500 million. And the president’s official campaign is now getting outraised substantially each month by Romney’s official campaign arms — $106 million to $71 million in June alone. The gap has alarmed senior Democrats and the Obama campaign, which is sending out increasingly urgent emails warning donors of defeat.
The president himself has picked up his own fundraising pace — frequently attending $35,800-a-plate traditional campaign events — and was quoted on a recently leaked campaign fundraising call urging his supporters to send more money amid the Republican fundraising onslaught.
It’s now part of Obama’s pitch that he could be the first incumbent president in history to be outspent.
A Democratic strategist familiar with the inner workings of super PACs said the inclusion — or exclusion — of Cabinet officials may not make much difference. The strategist noted that Plouffe is a top draw, while donors may not be able to pick the average Cabinet secretary out of a lineup.
Moreover, the really big checks tend to come after a long process of one-on-one effort rather than the larger events campaigns typically hold. And Democratic donors are typically less transactional than Republicans, the strategist contended, making them less interested in trying to influence a particular official. Other donors don’t want to betray their philosophy against big money in politics by embracing super PACs, the strategist suggested.
The message from Democrats as a whole to potential super PAC donors remains schizophrenic. While they acknowledge the need to raise money through super PACs, they continue trying to push bills in Congress that would blunt the effect of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case that made them possible.
On Monday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee filed a complaint against several GOP-aligned groups contending they are violating federal election law by raising unlimited amounts in secret. Senate Democrats also are looking at making another pitch to pass the DISCLOSE Act, which would force super PACs to detail their funding.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., walks on Broadway after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in the Flatiron District of New York City, April 16, 2015. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., also attended.