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Some Obama donors are feeling left out
They lament not getting access to president, other traditional perks

By Michael D. Shear and Dan Eggen
Friday, December 4, 2009

Some of President Obama's wealthiest supporters are becoming a bit whiny, and it has nothing to do with policy.

Tickets for tours of the presidential residence are scarce, even for those who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for last year's campaign. Private fundraisers tend to be brief, businesslike affairs. And there have been no sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom, weekends at Camp David or intimate lunches with the first couple.

Nearly a year into his presidency, that pattern has led some top Democratic donors across the country to grumble that they aren't getting the kind of personal attention from Obama and access to the White House they became used to during the eight years of Bill Clinton's presidency.

"I've had almost no communication with the White House," said Chris Korge, a top supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton from Miami who later collected $5.5 million for Obama, making him one of the president's biggest fundraisers.

Korge said his only visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was a St. Patrick's Day event. He complained in a recent interview that the administration has done little to reward the president's donors or tap into their experience and wisdom.

"There is no connection between the administration and money people," he said. "If they do have any connection . . . it is very limited as far as the fun stuff is concerned."

"You don't have the hang time with Obama," said Andy Spahn, a Hollywood consultant who joined with Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen to become one of Obama's biggest bundlers. Spielberg and Geffen made their first visit to the White House at last week's state dinner for the Indian prime minister; Spahn was not on the list.

Obama donors have by no means been cut out completely, and Republicans and campaign finance activists argue that a president who set a different standard for himself by running against a culture of questionable ethics in Washington has still done too much for his financial backers.

Fewer rewards?

At least 30 of the president's 324 top bundlers -- those who raised $100,000 or more -- have been nominated for ambassadorships or other senior administration posts, including some of the most consequential and coveted American outposts. Some have also been given at least one opportunity to visit the White House, in venues such as the St. Patrick's Day party in March or the first formal state dinner last week.

Obama's 16 ambassadorial nominees this year include Donald S. Beyer Jr., a Northern Virginia auto dealer and former lieutenant governor, as envoy to Switzerland, and Louis B. Susman, a Chicago businessman dubbed the "Hoover vacuum" for his fundraising prowess, as ambassador to Britain.

"To some degree, he gets hoisted on his own petard, because he said he's not going to do business as usual," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

But a review of appointments, visitor logs and other records shows that large bundlers account for only a small fraction of the hundreds of Senate-confirmed positions that Obama has moved to fill during his first 10 months in office. The numbers pale in comparison to Clinton's administration -- during which coziness with donors was legendary -- or to that of George W. Bush, who gave hundreds of jobs and other perks to wealthy supporters over the course of his presidency.

"Obama is clearly not appointing bundlers to the same extent as the Bush administration did," said Craig Holman, the government-affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a group that monitors ethics in government.

The number of jobs given to top Obama bundlers so far is not on pace with such appointments under Bush. Out of more than 500 "Pioneers" and "Rangers" who raised $100,000 or more during Bush's two presidential campaigns, nearly 40 percent ended up with an administration job or appointment, according to data compiled by Public Citizen.

Obama's record on ambassadors is also lagging behind his predecessor, who appointed 23 top fundraisers as diplomats during his first term.

In the weeks leading up to this year's elections, Obama stepped up his fundraising. He crisscrossed the country and finished the political season with 28 fundraisers that brought in more than $27 million for Democratic candidates and his party, according to data compiled by CBS Radio reporter Mark Knoller, who closely tracks presidential travel schedules. (The Democratic National Committee, which tallied fewer fundraising events, declined to release contribution totals.)

The pace is dramatically different than that of Bush's first year in office, when the new GOP president -- unrestrained by "soft money" donation limits in 2001 -- raised $48 million despite attending just six events.

Logs released last month showed that 41 bundlers who raised $100,000 or more for Obama had visited the White House through mid-September.

Many, such as FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who led the pack with 47 visits, made many routine appearances in the West Wing after being appointed to positions that required attending White House meetings. The list also included about a dozen others who attended bill signings or social events, the data show.

Discouraging access

Top White House officials say the president has actively sought to discourage the kind of donor access that leads to questions about access and perks.

"This administration has, across the board, set the toughest ethics standards in history," said Dan Pfeiffer, the president's communications director. "We have reduced special-interest influence over the policymaking process to promote merit-based decision-making."

Two programs run by the Democratic National Committee provide the most generous Obama donors with a title -- member of the National Finance Committee or the National Advisory Board-- and the right to attend quarterly briefings by administration and congressional officials.

But even that has done little to satisfy some donors.

"Is that a perk?" asked Spahn, who attended a recent briefing at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington. "Under Clinton, we did spend time in the White House. We did spend time in Camp David. We did spend time with the president in Los Angeles. There has been real frustration in the donor community in general. There is so much less of that than I think ever occurred in the past."

A few top Obama donors have received special treatment, such as visits to the small White House movie theater. But those have exclusively been Obama's closest friends, such as physician Eric Whitaker and businessman Marty Nesbitt, officials said.

Many of Obama's fundraisers are also part of a newer generation of the Democratic super-rich who never experienced the perks Clinton doled out.

Mark Gorenberg, one of Obama's top West Coast bundlers, said he did not expect access to the president. "It would be silly for me to say we wouldn't all love to be invited to the White House," he said, "but it isn't why we do it. I have no aspiration to work in Washington or [get] the perks."

That isn't to say Gorenberg hasn't been invited, however. The San Francisco venture capitalist made the state dinner list.

Database editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.

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