- - Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Politics is optics. It’s difficult to win people’s hearts and minds without being well regarded. President Obama knows this all too well, which is why he and his closest supporters are in high-damage control mode over a group called Organizing for Action (OFA).  

Organizing for Action was created from the remnants of Obama for America by former White House aide Jim Messina and other Obama allies, in an attempt to harness the power of the president’s campaign apparatus. With the blessing and support of Mr. Obama, OFA’s goal is to advance the president’s agenda through public advocacy. Public advocacy, as OFA’s founders know, requires expenditures of money.

This presents a problem. For many years, Mr. Obama publicly lambasted the influence of money in politics. In particular, his most vicious attacks were reserved for non-profit organizations designated as 501(c)4 groups.

Naturally, groups supporting further campaign finance regulation were thrilled to find an ally in the president of the United States. After suffering a devastating blow to their cause in the form of the Citizens United decision, proponents of expanded campaign finance laws viewed Mr. Obama’s admonition of the Supreme Court in the 2010 State of the Union Speech as a rallying cry.

Emboldened by Mr. Obama’s rhetoric, pro-regulation groups tried pushing a number of laws through Congress addressing everything from contribution limits to disclosure, with the knowledge that they had an ally who would sign these measures into law. Although these measures continually failed to muster enough votes to pass in Congress, pro-regulatory groups rejoiced once again when Mr. Obama announced he was considering an executive order mandating additional disclosure for companies vying for government contracts.

Nothing came of the draft executive order, either, but groups supporting further regulation continued finding new ways to press the issue. As campaign season swung into high gear, Mr. Obama sharpened his rhetoric about outside groups. One group in particular, Americans for Prosperity, received the brunt of his criticism.

When it was announced just six weeks after the election that the president’s campaign infrastructure was transitioning into the very thing Mr. Obama had campaigned against, a 501(c)4 organization, the pro-regulatory community felt immensely betrayed.  

Yet Mr. Obama’s actions make sense. In particular, spending money to advocate one’s political beliefs is not wrong. Court decisions in SpeechNow.org v. FEC and Citizens United have added new voices to the political discussion in our country. Since the November election, citizens’ groups and organizations previously kept out of the political arena have tackled issues ranging from gun control to cabinet nominees. In a time when engaging in public debate is often the key to advancing policy, it would be foolhardy for a key political player like the president to try to prevent his supporters from utilizing these new platforms.

Mr. Obama was elected, in part, on the self-styled reformers’ platform of “bucking special interests” and “keeping money out of politics.” It’s no surprise that the pro-regulatory community is upset that the man they once rallied around appears to be taking quarterly meetings with donors who make large contributions to a group formed for the sole purpose of supporting his policy interests. They find it shocking that a politician not facing re-election would reverse course on his rhetoric so quickly after the election that corporate-sponsored fundraisers were planned even for Inauguration weekend. 

Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity, the frequent target of Mr. Obama’s attacks on independent groups, is having a great time with the president’s implicit admission that, yes indeed, spending money is an important means of political debate. Americans for Prosperity released an ad poking fun at the president’s tacit endorsement of the legitimate role independent groups play in driving the debate.

Now that the group is off the ground, Mr. Messina, the organization’s national president, is dealing with Organizing for Action’s image crisis. After weeks of facing attacks from former allies and foes, and with the recent outcry over Mr. Obama addressing a “founders summit” on Wednesday for attendees donating more than $50,000, Mr. Messina published an op-ed on CNN’s website outlining policies for the organization that fall more in line with views Mr. Obama purported to support during the election. These new policies include quarterly disclosure of all donations over $250 and a pledge not to accept money from corporations, federal lobbyists and foreign entities.

Of course, whether any of these changes really matter is an interesting question. Does disclosing donations over $250 really make Organizing for Action more or less influential? Does anyone really care about the names of people who give $300 to Organizing for America? Are they big, corrupting donors? Does anyone really think Organizing for Action is changing Mr. Obama’s legislative priorities? Are there really people who think that this will “corrupt” our president (at least among those who were not already against him)?

Organizing for Action’s plight also shows the emptiness of the reform theory of politics. Their theory, to put it bluntly, has long been that the phalanx of “reform” groups – Common Cause, Public Citizen, Public Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Campaign Legal Center, etc. – should be able to spend money to try to influence public policy and citizen views on issues, but that those who seek to do the same thing by mentioning candidates should not. Does Mr. Obama, who is not even seeking re-election, wanting to have his allies speak out on politics put them in a different group?

Some may find it a bit unnerving that the president, while in office, has a group that appears to be in his control, but outside government or our traditional party structure, for the purpose of rallying his public. Presidents, of course, have long sought to rally public opinion, but Mr. Obama’s technique seems, to some observers, a little too much like something the late, unlamented Hugo Chavez would do. 

If that is an issue, it’s not because people are spending money to promote their political ideas. Organizing for Action merely highlights that even a “reform” agenda needs a little spending to be heard. The “reform community” is just angry that the president doesn’t do it the way they do – he’s more open.

The ultimate message voters should take away from the Organizing for Action kerfuffle: Whenever you hear a self-proclaimed reformer attack the evils of big money, watch what they do, not what they say.

Joe Trotter is the media manager at the Center for Competitive Politics.