RESOLVED: President Obama doesn’t (really) care about campaign finance reform

February 25, 2013

Here's a novel concept: For all of the rhetoric he has devoted to the need to reform how campaigns are funded, President Obama has done little to, you know, actually bring about those reforms. And, it can be argued relatively convincingly that Obama has actually done plenty to exacerbate the influence of money in politics.

Money. Greenbacks. Cashola. Money. Greenbacks. Cashola.

Consider the following:

1. Obama's decision to forgo public financing in the 2008 general election signaled the death of a campaign donation system that had been in place since the mid-1970s. Obama was the first candidate ever to opt out of public financing in the general election and his massive fundraising edge over Sen. John McCain in that race ensured that no future GOP nominee could stay within the system. Sure enough, Mitt Romney opted out of public financing in 2012. And it's impossible to imagine the leading candidates in 2016 tying their hands by accepting a limited amount of public money. Sure, Obama reversed course on public financing in 2008 with a more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone but that doesn't change this basic fact: He, more than any other politician, is responsible for the end of the public financing of presidential elections.

2. Obama sanctioned the creation -- and funding -- of a super PAC (known as Priorities USA Action) during the 2012 campaign after decrying the influence of such groups during the 2010 midterm campaign. The group, which raised and spent nearly $80 million, was run by two senior Obama aides and had struggled to collect donations prior to the public OK from the president's campaign. "The president opposed the Citizens United decision," wrote Obama 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina in a blog post explaining the move. "But this cycle, our campaign has to face the reality of the law as it currently stands." And while many Obama allies note that as a candidate in 2008 he swore off the creation of any outside groups to help his cause, it could be argued (and we believe) that the real reason he made such a move was because he wanted complete control over the messaging. Knowing that money wasn't going to be an issue -- see point 1 above -- Obama and his senior political team wanted to consolidate how they were talking about him, and making clear that he didn't want any outside spending on his behalf allowed him to do just that.

3. Organizing for America, the new grassroots lobbying and advocacy organization being run by top aides to the 2012 campaign, has set a budget of $50 million with at least half of that total coming from large checks written by a handful of very wealthy donors, according to the New York Times' Nick Confessore. The group has also been set up as a non-profit 501(c)(4) organization, meaning that it can not only accept unlimited donations from individuals but that it is under no requirement to disclose the sources of those contributions. (Organizing for America has said they will disclose their donors every few months but has offered few specifics of either when/how they will do that.)

Even some of the reforms that Obama has gotten credit for wind up being less than they initially appear. While there was a ban on corporate contributions and a relatively low limit on individual contributions for Obama's first inauguration, there was no such limits in place during Obama's second inaugural. Obama and his team made a big deal of not accepting corporate money to fund the Democratic National Convention last year in Charlotte, North Carolina but, through an entity known as New American City Inc., they did just that to help pay for many of the expenses surrounding the convention. (The Los Angeles Times has also reported that the convention fundraisers fell about $13 million short of their stated goal.)

But, wait, Obama supporters will argue. What about his forceful condemnation of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision during his 2010 State of the Union speech?

And, it is true that Obama did speak out forcefully -- "I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities ...They should be decided by the American people," he said, arguing against the ruling. But, read a bit further into that speech and you see just how committed Obama was to doing something about the ruling; "I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems," he said. Stunningly, nothing happened.

What's clear from a look at the broad sweep of what Obama has said -- and, more importantly, done -- on campaign finance reform is that while the president may genuinely believe there is too much money in politics, he's not terribly interested in doing much of anything about it.

This shouldn't be surprising for anyone that has spent time studying Obama's career.  At heart, Obama is a political pragmatist who knows that winning is the sine qua non of politics.

Sure, Obama could have won a moral victory by staying true to his pledge to accept public financing in the 2008 election but he would have also have been voluntarily tying one hand behind his back in the general election. He, smartly, chose the path of political pragmatism and an actual victory.

And, yes, he could have kept to his 2008 pledge to keep outside groups from spending on his behalf in 2012 but he recognized that with conservative groups like American Crossroads dropping hundreds of millions of dollars on efforts to defeat him he would be taking a major risk. He decided that risk wasn't worth taking.

Heck, with his re-election race now in his rear-view mirror, Obama could even turn to the need to reform campaign finance laws (an issue that does not move votes in the context of a presidential race) in his second term. But, in his two big speeches so far this year -- his second inaugural and his State of the Union -- there was nary a mention of campaign finance reform. (In his State of the Union speech, this is the only line we could find with a campaign finance reform tinge to it: "Let’s make sure people who bundle campaign contributions for Congress can’t lobby Congress, and vice versa – an idea that has bipartisan support, at least outside of Washington.")

No one can argue that there is more money in politics today than when President Obama took office in 2009.  Obviously, that fact can't simply be laid at his feet -- we contend that money will always find its way to politics. But Obama has done little to bring about real change in the way campaigns are funded.  A campaign finance reformer he is not.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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