The Obama campaign's abrupt reversal on super PACs this week — from bashing the "independent" political groups as destructive to embracing their fundraising muscle — has opened the president's re-election team to charges of hypocrisy and blatant political expediency.
Earlier this month in his State of the Union speech, President Obama decried the "corrosive influence of money in politics." In 2010, in his annual address to Congress, he memorably confronted the Supreme Court justices about his disgust for the high court's Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate and union spending.
As recently as Monday morning, he openly worried about the "negative" tone of super PAC-fueled ads, which have dominated the GOP primary ad wars.
But late Monday, the president's campaign manager signaled to donors that Mr. Obama had decided not to "unilaterally disarm." Instead, the campaign will dip into the same money pool fueled by the wealthy contributors the president repeatedly has criticized for not paying their fair share of taxes.
"We can't allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm," campaign manager Jim Messina wrote in a blog post.
The super PACs, which are supposed to remain legally separate from individual candidate campaigns and are barred from coordinating with them, have proliferated in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision in January 2010, which eliminated restrictions on corporate and union spending in campaigns.
Republican super PACs supporting Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have raised and spent tens of millions of dollars to pummel each other and rival candidates in the GOP primaries.
Senior campaign officials, as well as White House and Cabinet officials, plan to attend and speak at Priorities USA fundraising events, although the Obama campaign insists they won't be officially soliciting campaign contributions. The president, first lady, Vice President Joseph R. Biden and his wife, Jill, will not appear at Priorities USA fundraising events.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said the about-face on super PACs is just another example of the president breaking his campaign promises, but the move also has roiled even some loyal members of the president's liberal base.
Former Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who co-authored landmark campaign finance legislation with Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said Mr. Obama is "dancing with the devil" by deciding to enlist support for Priorities USA.
"I understand the desire to do everything possible to win. But this decision will push Democrats to become 'corporate-lite,' and will send us head-on into a battle we know we will lose, because Republicans like Mitt Romney and his friends have and will spend more money," Mr. Feingold said.
So far, Priorities USA has raised just $4.1 million — $2 million of which came from Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and $100,000 from director-producer Steven Spielberg. But Mr. Obama is hardly having fundraising problems. His campaign shattered second-quarter fundraising records for a White House incumbent by pulling in $86 million — a total that dwarfs the 2012 GOP field's take for the same period.
Political experts say Mr. Obama is well on his way to raising a record total of $1 billion for his re-election, but his campaign wants to use every fundraising weapon available — even super PACs — if it means a better chance at winning a second term.
Critics on both sides of the aisle familiar with the president's record on campaign finance say his decision to embrace super PACs should come as no surprise.
During his first campaign for president, then-Sen. Obama struck a death blow to the public financing system for presidential elections when he decided to forego the taxpayer-funded pool of election money to go it alone without the restrictions that accompanied it.
"Anybody who saw his reversal of 2008 in taking public funding would not be surprised by this," said Brad Smith of the Center for Competitive Politics, which supports few limits on campaign finance. "The [super PAC] system makes sense and the president is not going to go out against it, despite all of this chest-thumping about Citizens United."
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