On midterm campaign trail, Obama mixes populist appeal with wooing of big donors

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2010; A04

President Obama's message to voters this election year is simple and full of populist zeal: Democrats are on the side of the little guy, not the Wall Street brokers, celebrities and chief executives.

And yet as his poll numbers slide, the president's greatest utility to Democratic candidates may not be his presence at campaign events -- some would prefer that he keep his distance -- but his still impressive skill at vacuuming up millions of dollars from some of the country's richest and most generous donors.

In town after town, the president is holding events that highlight his party's work on behalf of the average Joe -- but that are carefully scheduled to leave plenty of time for unpublicized fundraisers with people who are anything but.

(Campaign 2010 fundraising)

Obama started Wednesday at the Tastee Sub Shop in Edison, N.J., where he attended a roundtable with small-business owners. He ended the day mingling with some of New York's wealthiest at the Greenwich Village townhouse of Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Price of admission: $30,000.

In the next several weeks, the president will fly around the country -- Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida -- explaining how his policies help struggling workers by day and wooing the rich and famous by night.

(PostPolitics: The difference between the Obama and Clinton money networks)

"For a Democratic president who has to convince the public that he understands the economic troubles that ordinary folks are facing now, it's a contrasting image," said George Mason University professor Stephen Farnsworth. "There's no real alternative, though. Obama is doing what he has to do."

Obama is by no means the first president who has struggled to balance the demands of fundraising with the need to appeal to the middle class. George W. Bush ranked his richest donors -- "Pioneers," "Rangers," "Super Rangers" -- according to how much they gave. At the same time, he successfully portrayed himself as an anti-elitist who snickered at the snobby rich, even as he hit them up for millions.

(Map: Where Republicans and Democrats get their campaign funds)

Bush had the advantage of making his appeals to the rich mostly during good times, before the housing market crashed and banks and automakers got in line for billions of dollars in bailouts. Obama has spent months scolding corporate America for callousness toward working people in difficult economic times.

Obama aides on Wednesday played down the contrasting images. As the president flew to New Jersey from Washington, deputy press secretary Bill Burton stressed the president's efforts to help pull the country out of the recession.

"This evening, the president is doing what the president traditionally does, which is helping to raise money for the campaign season," Burton said. "The president has a wide variety of things that he has on his schedule every single day. Today is one of those days, and he's wearing a couple different hats."

At the Tastee Sub Shop, Obama lunched -- sleeves rolled up -- with the town's mayor and the business owners. He ordered a six-inch "super sub" with everything and talked about how mayors "don't have a lot of time for political back and forth. They've gotta get potholes fixed and things like that."

A short helicopter ride later, Obama was in the Big Apple, first at the Four Seasons and later on the lower west side of Manhattan at Wintour's four-story brick townhouse.

Senior White House advisers said there is nothing inconsistent about the president's advocating on behalf of middle-class voters and then collecting money from wealthy, like-minded individuals to help pay for that advocacy.

(PostPolitics: Democratic Campaign Commitees lose Wall Street)

Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said most voters already have a cynical view of the need for politicians to grovel for money, often from the richest quarters. The White House is "counting on a certain amount of cynicism, which works in favor of making these compromises," Baker said. "I think they count on a kind of benevolent amnesia on the part of voters."

He added that any political damage to the president is likely to be limited, if only because Obama is in good company.

"If Republicans somehow refrained from doing the very same thing, it would be a problem," Baker said. "But Republicans don't go to convents and monasteries to raise money. That's not where the money is."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company