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Reversing course, Obama inauguration will take corporate money

- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2012

After winning the 2008 election, then President-elect Obama promised the "most open and accessible Inauguration in history" by banning corporate contributions and placing a $50,000 limit on donations from individuals.

Fast-forward four years and things are a lot different. On Friday, President Obama's finance team started selling exclusive access to a handful of inaugural receptions and activities to the highest corporate bidders.

The president's inaugural planners are justifying the decision to take millions from corporate donors to pay for the inaugural parade and the affiliated balls, receptions and concerts by noting that museums and philanthropic organizations and services groups all accept corporate cash.

"Our goal is to make sure that we will meet the fundraising requirements for this civic event after the most-expensive presidential campaign in history," said Addie Whisenant, a spokesman for the inaugural committee.

The new justification stands in stark contrast to the fanfare surrounding the announcement of the ban on corporate donations in 2008. Back then, the White House said the unprecedented limits on fundraising for the first Inauguration underscored the president's "commitment to change business as usual in Washington and ensure that as many Americans as possible, both inside and outside Washington, will be able to come together to unite the country and celebrate our common values and shared aspirations."

Previous inaugural contribution limits have run as high as $250,000, but this year, Mr. Obama is hopes to collect even more from single donations, specifically asking for contributions of $1 million or more.

Details about what Mr. Obama is offering the different levels of donors started leaking out over the weekend. For $1 million, donors will have access to a handful of events, including tickets to a "benefactors reception," a children's concert, a candlelight celebration at the National Building Museum, two reserved parade bleacher tickets and four tickets to the president's official inaugural ball, according to a report The New York Times. Individuals who cut checks for $250,000 will receive the same package as "institutions" that give $1 million.

Institutions giving $500,00 and individuals giving $150,000 won't have reserved bleacher seats and will receive only two tickets to the president's inaugural ball, candlelight celebration and will go to a benefactor's brunch instead of a reception.

The 2013 Inauguration Committee won't say how much it hopes to raise this year. But inaugural costs have steadily increased over the past decade. In 2009, Mr. Obama's inaugural planners raised a reported $53 million — all from individual donors. That figure was up from the $42.3 million President George W. Bush's committee spent in 2005 and the $33 million spent for President Bill Clinton's first Inauguration in 1993.

The president's finance team is asking for the higher corporate donations even as it tries to play down how lavish and exclusive the parties inevitably will be. This year, with the economic recovery still struggling to gain momentum and the uncertainty surrounding the "fiscal cliff" negotiations about the federal budget, officials are trying to strike a more somber, low-key tone.

The spectacle surrounding Mr. Obama's second Inauguration is expected to fall short of the 2009 ceremony and parties, when 1.9 million people gathered on the Mall to witness the swearing-in of the nation's first black president.

The Inauguration's theme, "Faith in America's Future," seems chosen to evoke a sense of American resilience during tough times. It also resembles the title of the GOP super PAC Restore Our Future that heavily backed Mitt Romney's failed presidential bid.

Mr. Obama spent months lamenting the rise of super PACS before former White House aides formed one of their own to help him compete.

At least one good-government group is calling Mr. Obama out for the dramatic reversal on corporate donations, arguing that the president spent his first term slowly abandoning his principles when it comes to money in politics.

John Wonderlich, the policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, criticized Mr. Obama for prioritizing a "lavish celebration over the integrity of the office" and said there are plenty of other ways to celebrate a re-election than holding swanky parties for an elite list of guests.

"What is Obama thinking?" he asked. "At a time when deficits, taxes and government programs are being negotiated in secretive two-person deal making, how can it possibly be a good idea to fund a huge party with huge corporate donations?"

In announcing the decision Friday, the committee pledged to post all the donors online and said the finance team would screen the corporate and individual contributions for potential conflict-of-interest issues for the White House and will bar funds from businesses with pending government contracts.

But there are no assurances that the donations will be disclosed reliably online and no way to prevent donors with potential conflicts from laundering them through another entity or donor.

Organizers will continue the 2009 ban on accepting donations from lobbyists and PACs, and will not accept corporate or individual sponsorship agreements, but Mr. Wonderlich said those limits are laughable because a lobbyist's corporate client can donate directly.

"Obama said unlimited donations sully our democracy, threaten public service, and weaken representation — and now has chosen to embrace them," he wrote. "Maybe Obama's setting the tone for his second term: We're not worried about whether we look like reformers at all."

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