President Barack Obama campaigned on a new era of government transparency and crusaded against deep-pocketed special interests, so it’s highly disappointing to see him now blatantly sell access to the White House. The conversion of his campaign into a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization mocks the very campaign finance laws the president argued needed to be strengthened in the first place.
Organizing for Action, which is raising millions of dollars to support the president’s legislative agenda, is walking the finest of lines between a “social welfare” organization and a full-fledged political campaign. The organization is being led by Mr. Obama’s inner circle of political loyalists and has access to contact information for more than 15 million supporters. Additionally, Organizing for Action also inherited the advanced technology and grassroots infrastructure from the Obama campaign.
“I’ll make our government open and transparent so that anyone can ensure that our business is the people’s business,” Mr. Obama proclaimed in a 2008 campaign speech. “No more secrecy. That is a commitment that I make to you as president.”
Now, however, Organizing for Action and Mr. Obama seem more interested in securing huge amounts of money to push their agenda than bringing change to Washington. Mr. Obama is even willing to sell access to the West Wing to get donors to add extra zeroes to their checks. Donors who give $500,000 or more to Organizing for Action will become part of an advisory board, and will have quarterly meetings with the president where they can promote pet projects or attempt to sway the White House’s position on critical issues.
The group’s acronym — OFA — should stand for “Organizing for Access.” It’s no wonder that Mr. Obama’s top donors from his past campaigns are lining up: For a set fee, they can purchase a nearly unprecedented level of access to the administration.
In fact, Mr. Obama and a litany of top campaign staffers and former White House officials are lined up to speak at the rebooted Organizing for Action’s first ever “founders’ summit” this week. Large portions of the summit will be closed off to the media and the public, so that, according to OFA, the donors in attendance can “brainstorm new ideas and have group conversations about policies and issues” with the president and his team.
It’s outrageous that Mr. Obama is crafting his agenda in secretive pay-to-play meetings, instead of being open with the American people about his plans to fix our country’s problems. Unfortunately, this doesn’t come as a surprise. After all, Mr. Obama promised repeatedly that health care and budget negotiations would be televised for all to see, before holding these hearings behind closed doors with labor, trade groups and the like. Organizing for Action, therefore, is just one more sad reminder of how Mr. Obama has failed to live up to his promises of open government.
There is nothing illegal about Mr. Obama’s power play, but as a candidate, he promised us better, and as president, he should be giving us better. Mr. Obama can and should use his position of power to promote transparency and set the standard for other politicians, not engage in the same old tricks in backdoor meetings.
Sadly, well into the president’s second term, he is acting as a campaigner-in-chief, not a chief executive. Organizing for Action is flooding the airwaves with advertisements praising the Obama administration’s policies, and viewers at home are being inundated with just as many talking points and political attacks as they were during the 2012 campaign.
His successful re-election should have marked the end of his days working the donor circuit and the beginning of a new era of accountability. Instead, Mr. Obama is showing us that his powerful friends are more important than the American taxpayers. Transparency isn’t a policy, it’s an action — one that the president needs to start taking. It’s time for Organizing for Action to go, and for the president to take a stand for transparency and open government, like he promised.
Jason Stverak is the president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.