Obama to Reject Public Funds for Election

By Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 20, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama reversed his pledge to seek public financing in the general election yesterday, a move that drew criticism from adversaries and allies alike but could provide him with a significant spending advantage over Republican rival John McCain.

Obama will become the first major-party presidential nominee to reject the public funds, passing up nearly $85 million in taxpayer money and instead looking to the 1.5 million donors who contributed to his primary campaign. Given his groundbreaking success in raising money in the Democratic primaries, estimates of how much he could collect for the general-election run to $300 million or more, a sum that would allow the senator from Illinois to compete even in traditionally Republican states.

"It's not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections," Obama said in a video message to supporters, circulated yesterday morning by his campaign. "But the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system."

The announcement came as Obama's national finance committee was preparing to meet in Chicago, and on the same day he launched his first television ad of the general election.

In the hours after the announcement, McCain indicated he would consider forgoing public financing as well, but he later indicated that he will opt into the system. "We will take public financing," he said on the Straight Talk Express bus. Asked why, he said simply, "Because we decided to take public financing."

But earlier in the day the senator from Arizona lashed out at Obama. "This is a big, big deal," McCain told reporters while touring a flood-ravaged area in Columbus Junction, Iowa. "He has completely reversed himself and gone back, not on his word to me, but the commitment he made to the American people."

Through the end of April, Obama had raised $272 million, and he is required to file a report covering his May activities today. McCain submitted his May filing yesterday, showing he had raised a total of about $122 million after bringing in $21 million last month.

Under the public financing system, which was established in the wake of the Watergate scandal, candidates are barred from raising private funds or spending their own money on their general-election bids. The lump sum they receive from the Treasury is the only money they can spend once they are officially declared their party's nominee.

A separate public funding system governs the presidential primaries, and Obama and McCain were among the contenders who shunned the federal money and the spending limits that come with it. With his bid for the GOP nomination foundering late last year, however, McCain used the promise of his ability to collect public funding as collateral for campaign loans. Both the Federal Election Commission, which governs the systems, and the Democratic National Committee have been highly critical of the maneuver.

Yesterday, government watchdog groups expressed disappointment with Obama's move. Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook called $85 million "plenty of money" and warned that private funding -- even in the mostly small sums that Obama relies on -- "comes with the expectations of special access or favors."

The presumptive Democratic nominee is one of three lead Senate sponsors of legislation to change the public financing system.

"Senator Obama knew the circumstances surrounding the presidential general election when he made his public pledge to use the system," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.

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