As Obama begins fundraising swing, campaign finance watchdogs growl

President Obama, eager to revive his stalled gun-control agenda, will tour a Denver police academy Wednesday to put public pressure on his political opponents. In the evening, the president will make a private appeal to a more exclusive gathering at the San Francisco mansion of billionaire Gordon Getty.

The evening festivities are part of a two-day Western swing by Obama, arranged foremost as a return of the Democrats’ No. 1 fundraiser to the money trail just five months after Obama won his final election.

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The dinner at the Getty home, along with three other high-dollar receptions in the Bay Area, are the first of 14 events the president will headline this year to help fill the coffers of the Democratic Party well in advance of the 2014 midterm elections. In addition, he is expected to raise money this year for Organizing for Action (OFA), his former campaign apparatus that has morphed into a “social justice organization” dedicated to advancing Obama’s legislative agenda.

It is a robust pace for a president sworn into office just over two months ago, but Obama and his advisers believe the investment is crucial in an era when both parties are increasingly engaged in round-the-clock campaigning.

After raising a record $1.1 billion for his reelection, the president is now involved in a behind-the-scenes effort to win back the House and hold on to the Senate next year.

“He’s going to be raising money to try to elect people who he believes share his agenda and his priorities,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said this week.

Obama’s strategy has been viewed as an insurance policy against a Republican-controlled House that has shown little interest in supporting major pieces of his second-term agenda.

But if his target is the GOP, Obama himself has become the target of one-time allies in the open-government watchdog community who are disillusioned by the president’s reluctance to fully embrace the campaign finance reform he once vowed to make a top priority.

In his 2010 State of the Union address, Obama famously criticized the Supreme Court’s decision a week earlier that corporations could spend unlimited money in federal elections.

“I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities,” Obama said with the justices sitting in the front row. “They should be decided by the American people.”

But Obama’s critics point to his decision last year to endorse an outside “super PAC” aligned with his campaign that was not bound by federal rules on disclosure of campaign donors, and his decision to accept corporate contributions for his inauguration in January.

Advocates protested again when Organizing for Action initially declared it would not disclose the exact amounts donated by top supporters, before reversing course in the face of public pressure.

“It is an unbelievable irony that he has typified the permanent campaign fundraising, but at the same time was the one who said he would clean up Washington,” said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, an open-government advocacy group.

Obama is “continuing to raise money for candidates and endorsing a dark-money committee,” Miller added. “He’s becoming a major part of that machine when he promised to fix it and attacked the other party during the campaign for how much money they were raising.”

Obama aides scoffed at the suggestion that the president was doing anything out of the ordinary. The president’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, said last year that Obama embraced the super PAC only as a last resort in the face of several outside GOP groups that were raising hundreds of millions of dollars for Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

“We’re not going to just unilaterally disarm,” Obama said at the time.

Last month, Carney, the White House spokesman, noted Obama’s support for changes to federal law that would require greater transparency, including requiring groups to reveal donor information and barring lobbyists from bundling donations.

“The president has been very clear that we should be doing more to reduce the role of money in politics,” Carney said.

Brendan J. Doherty, author of the 2012 book “The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign,” said that each of the three two-term presidents who preceded Obama also engaged heavily in fundraising the year after their reelection.

Ronald Reagan participated in 20 fundraisers for Republicans in 1985, and George W. Bush did 14 in 2005, according to Doherty’s accounting. Bill Clinton, committed to helping the Democratic Party eliminate debt after the 1996 campaign, appeared at a whopping 77 fundraisers in 1997, he said.

The difference for Obama, Doherty said, is his early focus on the House in 2014. The president has committed to eight fundraisers for the lower chamber this year, compared to just five in the year preceding the 2010 midterms, when House Democrats were routed by tea party-fueled Republicans.

“The increased attention on the House by Obama is certainly a sign that efforts to win back the House will be a big focus over the next few years,” Doherty said.

In San Francisco and the wealthy enclave of nearby Atherton, Obama is tapping one of the three traditional Democratic fundraising bases (New York and Los Angeles are the other two).

Before arriving at the Getty mansion Wednesday night, Obama will deliver remarks at a $5,000-per-head cocktail reception at the home of billionaire Tom Steyer, a former asset manager.

On Thursday in Atherton, Obama will appear at the homes of financier Mark W. Heising and Levi-Strauss heir John D. Goldman at events where donors are paying up to $32,400, the maximum annual amount an individual can give a national party committee under campaign finance laws.

The two days of fundraising events, which are expected to bring in several million dollars, are unusual for Obama, since all of them occur in grand private homes. Usually there is a mix between private receptions and lower-priced events geared to a mass audience.

Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, an open-government advocacy group, said Obama and his advisers are foolish to think the public accepts the idea that the president must engage in nonstop fundraising just because opponents are doing so.

“I still think the president is feeding the current system and what we want to do is starve the current system,” Edgar said. “I don’t want the president to disarm, but I want him to lead on reform and set the stage so the next candidates for the White House don’t spend all their time raising money.”

Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.

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