Last week it was Hollywood glitterati. The week before it was Wall Street financiers. Regardless of what is going on in America and the world, one thing has become certain about President Obama’s work schedule — there will always be fundraisers. On Tuesday, the president left Washington to spend three days traveling up and down the West Coast to line the coffers of his party ahead of the midterms. He dined and spoke in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles for attendees paying up to $32,400 for the privilege.
This year alone, Obama has attended 40 fundraisers and has hosted nearly 400 events while in office. And Michelle Obama has been hitting the fundraising circuit as well. In Chicago on Friday, the first lady urged the assembled supporters to “write a big, fat check” to ensure the Democrats have the best chance of doing well in the midterms. Just one day earlier, she admitted “there’s too much money in politics.”
Spending so much time on fundraising can be risky. When the first reports of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash came through, Obama was making his way to New York. Instead of turning around for Washington, the president continued on to two fundraising events, keeping in close contact with Secretary of State John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) throughout the evening. This decision left the president open to attacks about use of his time. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, “I don’t understand this president,” adding, “This is what we used to call in the military — AWOL.”
Obama is not breaking new ground by spending so much time fundraising. In fact, he is part of a long-term trend. Over the past 30 years, the number of fundraising events undertaken by presidents in office has been on the rise. In their first terms, presidents tend to have fewer events. Ronald Reagan hosted 80 fundraising events in his first term. George H.W. Bush beat it with 137 events in his single term, while Bill Clinton managed 167 events. George W. Bush hosted 173 fundraisers, which Obama fitted in more than any other president — 321 events in his first term.
During their second terms, recent presidents have ramped up the number of events they host, no longer having to worry about their own re-election campaigns. Instead, there is one final push for the midterms before moving on to assisting their party’s next presidential candidate. In his second term, Reagan hosted 100 fundraisers, while Clinton managed a staggering 471 events in his last four years. George W. Bush hosted significantly fewer events in his second term, 155, possibly due to the repercussions of the financial crisis, while Obama has garnered 78 so far. Although he is lagging behind the number of fundraisers Clinton had held by this time in his second term, Obama is on track to host more events than Bush, who had attended 30 fundraisers by this point in 2006.
Although Obama has a long way to go to become fundraiser in chief, it is becoming less clear what is happening at these events. According to CBS’s Mark Knoller, out of the 40 fundraisers hosted by Obama in 2014 so far, 17 of them were closed to the press. Half were open to the White House pool of print reporters, albeit with no Q&As, while just three were open for TV coverage. In these closed press fundraisers, the White House pool members are briefed on the ticket prices and number of attendees.
The increasing number and secrecy of these events is a troubling proposition for those who monitor the level of fundraising presidents undertake. Brendan J. Doherty, an associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, has chronicled the rise of political fundraisers in his book, “The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign.” Through his research, he says that fundraising is only going to become a bigger and bigger part of the president’s job — distracting him from other matters.
“The president’s time is his scarcest resource,” Doherty says. “By forgoing other activities to fundraise, there is a definite shift in presidential resources.”
Presidents are under pressure to help their parties, too. Obama has helped decrease the Democratic National Committee’s debt by 80 percent since the beginning of this year. The need to help parties and candidates means elections are starting earlier, and presidents have to help the party throughout their time in office. “The pressure to fundraise early and often makes it more difficult for the parties to work with each other,” Doherty says.
What about the next president? Doherty says Obama’s successor will be under even more pressure to bring in funds, thanks to contribution limits, rising costs of campaigns and super PACs.
“The super PACs represent the biggest shift, as parties must find lots of people to make smaller, regulated party contributions to keep up with unlimited super PAC fundraising. Or they need to find people who will contribute millions to their own party’s super PACs for Senate races, or even more for a presidential campaign.”