Now this is change you can believe in: After eschewing big-money donations for first inauguration four years ago, President Obama was asking for donations up to $1 million to help him throw the two big inaugural balls.
After winning the 2008 election on a general theme of changing Washington, Mr. Obama promised the “most open and accessible inauguration in history” by banning corporate contributions and placing a $50,000 limit on donations from individuals.
But Mr. Obama’s 2013 inauguration is free from such lofty language when it comes to its attitude toward private financing. The president’s re-election campaign, along with the Democratic National Committee, raised more than $1 billion to re-elect him — a record that has left Democratic donors with a serious case of fundraising fatigue.
Previous inaugural contribution limits have run as high as $250,000, but this year, Mr. Obama is collecting even more from single donations, specifically asking for an unprecedented $1 million or more from each donor.
Mr. Obama’s shift over the past four years has left many campaign finance reform advocates disillusioned.
“You have to be pretty dense not to get the message that after four years, [changing the campaign finance system] is not an issue that the president is spending any political capital on,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center.
Inaugural planners point out that Mr. Obama will not accept donations from lobbyists and political action committees, unlike the practice under President George W. Bush.
But finance watchdogs say both of Mr. Bush’s inaugural committees were far more transparent than Mr. Obama’s second-term operation about the sources of their money.
In disclosing contributions, Mr. Bush’s inaugural planners identified the donors and the amount each gave to the inauguration committee. Mr. Obama’s 2013 inauguration committee website lists just the names of its donors, saying only that they gave more than $200.
“I would say it’s worse than the last Bush administration and the first Obama inaugural,” said the Sunlight Foundation’s Keenan Steiner. “You can’t give them an ‘F’ because they are going above what [federal law] requires. But you can give them a ‘D’ – it’s just so much worse than [their disclosure] in 2008 and 2009.”
This year’s inauguration planners defend their decisions to accept corporate and union cash and post only the names of donors on their website by saying they are doing more than the law requires.
“To help cover the cost of the public events, the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Committee will be accepting contributions from individual and institutional donors in compliance with the laws governing contributions to an Inaugural Committee,” said spokeswoman Addie Whisenant. “The PIC will not be accepting donations from lobbyists or PACs and will not be entering into any sponsorship agreements with individuals or corporations.”
“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,” she continued. “To ensure continued transparency, all names of donors will be posted to a regularly updated website.”
Mr. Obama also has the distinction of being the first president in modern times to continue fundraising for the campaign after the election was over — at least since the late 1970s when the Federal Election Commission was established and started keeping records of such things.
Since Election Day, the president’s Obama for America organization has produced at least two web videos showcasing the president’s record and including “donate” buttons supporters can click to give money.
In one fundraising pitch, Jim Messina, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, said donors would be able to participate in an “Obama Legacy Conference” during inauguration weekend to consider how to use the $5.4 million Obama for America still has in the bank. There are restrictions on the inauguration committee using money raised during the campaign.
Making it permanent
On Friday, news broke that Mr. Messina planned to turn the campaign into a continuing nonprofit activist organization that would not have to disclose its future donors — raising the possibility of the formation of a Democratic counterpart to Crossroads GPS, a spin-off of the super PAC fundraising machine ex-Bush aide Karl Rove founded.
Although Mr. Obama has not said a word about the future of his campaign apparatus — with its millions of emails and reams of data on supporters — Vice President Joseph R. Biden said last week said he could rely on the former campaign machinery to help generate public support for the administration’s new package of gun violence proposals.
The creation of 501(c)4 organization follows earlier reversals by Mr. Obama on super PACs, organizations that sprung up after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened the opened the door to outside groups collecting unlimited corporate donations.
Despite denouncing the Supreme Court decision and even chiding the high court’s judges over it during a State of the Union address, Mr. Obama decided gave behind-the-scenes approval to several top aides to set up super PACS supporting him in 2012.
The Sunlight Foundation also suggested that Mr. Obama’s decision to accept corporate and union cash could end up helping to fund his future presidential library. Several recent presidential inaugural committees have ended up with surpluses, and there are no rules for how the excess money can be spent.
President Clinton’s inaugural committee gave between $1 million and $5 million to the William J. Clinton Foundation for his presidential library, Sunlight officials said. The George W. Bush Presidential Center, which includes a museum, think tank and library set to open in April, has raised more than $400 million but has not disclosed its funders.
But recent reports suggest there might not be an inauguration committee surplus. Even though Mr. Obama is known as one of the best political fundraisers in history, he seems to have struggled to convince donors to pony up for the inauguration.
With just days to go, several media outlets reported that as of last week, the committee was still millions short of its goal of raising $40 million to $50 million and repeating its take of $53 million in 2009.
The committee won’t say how much it hopes to raise this year, although a source close to the operation said the goal is between $40 and $50 million — slightly down the first inauguration when the committee raised all of its funds from individual donors and banned corporate cash. This year’s event will feature significantly smaller crowds and only two official inaugural balls — down from 10 in 2008.
Even though he’s thrown the door open to unlimited donations, Mr. Obama only has 13 corporate donors for his inaugural, according to a donor list of more than 1,000 inauguration “benefactors” posted on the inaugural website as of Saturday morning.
Although there’s no way to tell how much they have given, the newest additions to the list of inaugural donors include more traditional Democratic donors, including eight labor unions: the American Federation of Government Employees; the American Postal Workers Union; the International Association of Firefighters; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades; the Laborers International Union of North America; and the Sheet Metal Workers International Association.
Corporate donors include: Microsoft, AT&T; Coca-Cola; Fed Ex; Centene Corp., a company that manages Medicaid for states; biotech giant Genentech; Southern Company, one of the nation’s largest electric utilities; United Therapeutics; Financial Innovations, a vendor that ran the Obama campaign’s online store; and Stream Line Circle LLC, which is associated with gay rights activist Jon Stryker.
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Susan Crabtree is an award-winning investigative reporter with more than 15 years of reporting experience in Washington, D.C. Her reporting about bribery, corruption and conflict-of-interest issues on Capitol Hill has led to several FBI and ethics investigations, as well as consequences for members within their caucuses and at the ballot box. Susan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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