The move signals a remarkable turnabout for a politician who has spent much of his career railing against the influence of such groups on elections, calling them a “threat to democracy” during the 2010 midterms. It also underscores how much the landscape has changed since 2008, when Obama easily outdistanced his Republican opponent in fundraising.
Faced with conservative groups raising tens of millions of dollars in unlimited donations, officials said, Obama decided to cast aside idealism for pragmatism in an attempt to remain competitive in November. Aides say the issue came to a head during the Republican primary contests, as the potential size of GOP front-runner Mitt Romney’s super PAC war chest became more apparent.
“The combination of the sheer magnitude of what we were watching on the Republicans’ side, combined with the lack of any real ammunition on our side, was disconcerting,” said one Obama adviser, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about the decision.
The reversal, which called to mind Obama’s decision in 2008 to decline public matching funds, angered liberal-leaning activist groups already disappointed with the president’s mixed record on lobbying and campaign-finance reform. Republican leaders also piled on the criticism, accusing Obama of hypocrisy in deciding to embrace a system he has long opposed.
“Just another broken promise,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Tuesday.
But senior aides said Obama concluded there was no way to combat the wave of spending by conservative super PACs and other groups without playing by the same rules of fundraising. Even then, these aides insist, Democratic groups are likely to be outspent by those on the other side.
Longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod said there is an “array of guns pointed at us” from the Republican side.
“We were faced with a situation as to whether we could afford to play by two sets of rules,” Axelrod said on MSNBC. “And the answer is obviously no. . . . But that doesn’t mean that we believe that this is the best way for the system to function. The president will continue to fight for reform, but that won’t be in in this campaign.”
The Democratic worries come despite a blockbuster fundraising year for the Obama campaign, which with the Democratic National Committee raised $224 million. Obama’s campaign raised $745 million during the 2008 election cycle, and advisers have long expected that his campaign will at least approach that total again.