Obama's fundraisers are rebuilding bridges to big donors for 2012 campaign

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 9:50 AM

The Obama juggernaut is fueling up.

In an attempt to patch up the relationship between the president and the nation's top donors, Jim Messina, the 2012 reelection campaign manager and former Obama deputy chief of staff, will headline a Democratic Party event next week at the Park Avenue apartment of Jane Hartley and Ralph Schlosstein, the Obama fundraising flagship in New York. The conciliatory mission, along with the selection of Julianna Smoot, the outgoing White House social secretary as Messina's campaign deputy, signals an intention to rebuild the big-donor establishment that President Obama obliterated.

The Feb. 3 event is the first of many. "It's just starting," said Charles Myers, a donor and investor with Evercore Partners, adding, "Large donors will step up."

In 2008, Obama's record-shattering haul of lower-dollar contributions was the campaign's preferred talking point when it came to fundraising. But the early and risky endorsement of Obama by some of the most prestigious Democratic donors in New York (then Hillaryland) bestowed a crucial aura of seriousness on the long-shot candidate.

As president, Obama suddenly turned a cold shoulder, rewarding few donors with government perches. He also shunned social events, photo ops and Christmas party invites that many contributors covet. He pushed reforms in the financial sector and adopted a populist tone that horrified the big bundlers of campaign donations on Wall Street.

"Investment banks really hate the administration," said one prominent and loyal Obama donor, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the president's fundraising prospects. "They will not come back."

Last month, Dan Loeb, an active Obama donor in 2008 and a founder of the hedge fund Third Point, sent a letter dramatically depicting hedge-fund managers who have been supportive of Obama as the victims of domestic abuse. "If we are really nice and stay quiet," he wrote, "everything will be alright and the President will become more centrist." He added, "I mean he really loves us and when he beats us, he doesn't mean it; he just gets a little angry."

(A spokeswoman for Loeb declined to comment as to whether he had received an invite to the Messina event.)

But all those hard feeling predated Obama 2.0. (Or, if you prefer the characterization of the administration's message mavens, the return to the original Obama.) He extended the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, installed such business-friendly officials as chief of staff William M. Daley and delivered a pro-growth State of the Union address. The White House reelection bid will test the enthusiasm of small donors, who might prove discouraged by the centrist bent and the policy compromises of Obama's administration. Big-dollar donors expect to be in greater demand.

"The president's shift to the center has renewed my . . . interest, enthusiasm and support for him," said Myers, who added he wasn't alone among his peers. He plans to play a large role in presidential fundraising this cycle. "My guess is that he is going to do better with people writing large checks."

Myers, who has been invited to the Hartley fundraiser and is a top donor to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), said that the $1 billion target for total money raised is both floating around fundraising circles and not out of bounds.

"It sounds incredibly aggressive," he said. "But I think it's very doable."

If Obama hopes to hit such a mark, he'll need his top team on board. According to the prominent Obama donor, the president's core group of financial backers including Orin Kramer, an investor at Boston Provident; Mark Gallogly a co-founder of Centerbridge Partners; Jamie Rubin, an investor at BC Partners; and Robert Wolf, president of UBS Investment Bank, remains intact.

The unknown variables, the donor said, were whether the Obama campaign would reach out to what remained of the old Clinton guard, whether new, enthusiastic donors like Myers would join the orbit in a significant way, and how effectively the Obama campaign would "mend fences."

"The Obama folks are well aware that the donors don't feel taken care of," said an influential Democratic fundraiser in New York, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the chilly donor climate.

And so it is no accident that Messina is going to the apartment of Hartley (the chief executive of the Observatory Group) and her husband, Schlosstein (the uber-investor and Evercore chief executive). Obama kicked off his general election campaign with a fundraiser at their place on June 4, 2008, a day after the last primary. Rahm Emanuel chose their abstract-art-adorned apartment as the site to explain Obama's financial regulation in April, and the couple have been among the few fundraisers to garner an invite to a state dinner.

The usual Obama backers are expected to be in attendance in New York. But, according to the Democratic fundraiser, there may be another motivation for showing up to help the president.

"I was talking to one Wall Street guy, and he said, 'Ugh. Do I have to help Obama?'â??" recounted the Democratic fundraiser. "I said: 'Of course you do. He's going to be president again!'â??"

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