FOR EVIDENCE that the permanent campaign has become embedded in our national life, look no further than President Obama’s recent announcement that he is setting up a group to keep his supporters energized and enrolled for action in a second term. To be called Organizing for Action, the group will harvest the rich data — e-mails and names — of the Obama foot soldiers who knocked on doors and got out the vote.
“The president has the most exciting campaign apparatus ever built,” Robert Gibbs, the president’s former press secretary, declared in a television interview. “. . .It’s time to turn that loose for something more than just an election. If the NRA’s got a list, then Obama for America has a bigger list.”
Certainly, there’s something bigger going on here — a mix of technical prowess and grass-roots smarts. But there is also a whiff of something fishy.
The group will be tax-exempt under Section 501(c)4 of the Internal Revenue Code. This category is intended for social welfare organizations, and if the Obama team sticks to organizing and talking about issues, there’s nothing wrong with that. But in the past election cycle, a number of dark-money campaign groups took advantage of the fact that 501(c)4 does not require them to disclose their donors to the public. The Obama team says that it will disclose. It is a promise but entirely voluntary.
A second worry is that the Obama team is willing to accept corporate money. While officials say that the group won’t accept cash from political action committees and lobbyists, they apparently welcome companies and individuals making donations. At a closed-door meeting during the inaugural celebrations, the group made its first pitch to Democratic donors and bundlers, Politico reported. No doubt some donors will sign checks in hopes of influencing Obama administration policy decisions.
A third minefield is what role Organizing for Action might play in election campaigns. Under the law, a 501(c)4 group can engage in some electoral politics, but that can’t be its “primary” purpose. As we’ve noted, several organizations appear to have abused this standard in 2012 by spending heavily for political advertising to support candidates. Is the president now creating an apparatus that could do the same?
What’s most troubling is that President Obama seems to have developed a tin ear about shadow money in politics. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United campaign-finance case, Mr. Obama warned of “a new stampede of special-interest money in our politics.”
Why, then, is he opening a cashier’s window with his name on it for the same special interests? The president and his team may be wizards at social media and grass-roots organizing, but from an influence-peddling standpoint this organization looks to be fraught with hazard.