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Obama picks pragmatism over principle on super PACs

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President Obama’s campaign announced late Monday that it will embrace the top super PAC supporting Obama’s reelection campaign, in what amounts to the latest example of the president embracing political pragmatism over principle.

This balancing act has marked many of his most significant campaign promises and policy decisions; Obama embraces principle up to the point where it’s pretty clear that pragmatism is the more logical choice.

To wit:

* Despite promising to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year of taking office, Obama then backed off that promise, bowing to the reality that moving those prisoners elsewhere was too difficult.

* Despite aiming to withdraw troops from Iraq in 2009, it wound up taking another two years.

* When Republicans prevented Democrats from re-gaining a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate following Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) 2010 special election win, Obama and the Democrats embraced a work-around method of passing the president’s signature health care bill.

* The administration’s recent decision to prevent the Plan B emergency contraceptive from being offered over-the-counter to teenage girls.

President Obama shakes hands with firefighters after speaking about the economy during an event at Fire Station #5 in Arlington, Va., on Friday. (Susan Walsh — Associated Press)

* Obama’s decision to hire William Daley as his chief of staff — a move that was seen as an olive branch to the business community.

But perhaps more than any of those decisions, Obama’s decision to embrace the Priorities USA super PAC harkens back to his 2008 decision to spurn the public financing system for presidential campaigns.

Obama had been a strong proponent of that system, but in the face of an influx of cash to his campaign, it was clear that he was going to be able to raise much more money if he did not take part in the “matching funds program,” which matches donations to a presidential campaign up to a certain extent and doesn’t allow the candidate to raise or spend more than that amount.

In a similar way, Obama has for years been decrying the increasing influence of super PACs on the political process. He even referred to them as “threat to democracy.”

But when the top GOP super PACs raised about four times as much as the top Democratic super PACs in 2011, it was clear he would be ceding a major political advantage by continuing to shun super PACs. Now, apparently, he’s prepared to use that destructive tool of campaigning, begrudgingly, because it would be too difficult not to.

Make no mistake: The president’s evolution on super PACs has been a stark one, both on the front end and the back end.

The principled position he took on super PACs was one of the strongest he’s taken on any issue to date — “threat to democracy” is pretty strong language — and his new position is set to push the bounds of what’s a permissible relationship between a super PAC and a campaign.

His campaign announced Monday that not only is it okay with what Priorities USA is doing, but that it will dispatch campaign officials, White House staff and even cabinet officials to Priorities USA events — though it should be noted that they will not actively ask for donations to the super PAC. (Legally, they could only ask for contributions up to $2,500, while the super PAC can accept donations of any size.)

Obama, in effect, is signalling that he is not just ready to play the game, but that he is ready to game the system as well.

© The Washington Post Company