The Obama administration’s announcement late Monday that it would no longer oppose the efforts of Democratic Super PACs was a stunning, if predictable, reversal of the president’s professed disdain for “shadowy groups with harmless sounding names” that pose “a threat to our democracy.”
The move comes despite a barrage of hostile rhetoric from the president and other Democrats directed at the very existence of such groups as well as the Supreme Court decision that led to their creation, Citizens United.
“One of the worries we have obviously in the next campaign is that there are so many of these so-called super PACs, these independent expenditures that are gonna be out there,” Obama told NBC’s Matt Lauer in an interview that aired just hours before the White House announcement. “There is going to be just a lot of money floating around, and I guarantee a bunch of it’s going to be negative.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), chief political strategist for Senate Democrats, recently pledged to hold congressional hearings on the activities of Super PACs, which he described as “evil” and “corrosive to democracy.”
Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), an outspoken advocate of campaign finance reform, reacted forcefully to the decision, accusing Democrats of “dancing with the devil.”
“The president is wrong to embrace the corrupt corporate politics of Citizens United through the use of Super PACs,” Feingold said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s not just bad policy; it’s also dumb strategy.”
In characteristic fashion, the White House made a point of professing reluctance in making the decision. “Our campaign has to face the reality of the law as it stands,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina wrote in an email to supporters Monday night.
However, it is not the first time the president has “reluctantly” reversed course on the issue of campaign financing. In 2008, after securing the Democratic nomination, Obama became the first presidential candidate in history to reject public campaign financing, despite pledging not to do so. “It's not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections,” he said in a video announcement.
The reversal came despite promises from campaign spokesman Bill Burton that if Obama was nominated, the then-Illinois senator would “aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.”
The New York Times wrote at the time that Obama’s about-face “will quite likely transform the landscape of presidential campaigns, injecting hundreds of millions of additional dollars into the race and raising doubts about the future of public financing for national races.”
The Gray Lady was right. With the help of labor unions, trial lawyers, and other liberal interest groups, Obama’s campaign went on to raise nearly $750 million, more than double the $368 million raised by Republican opponent Sen. John McCain.
Since taking office, the president’s rhetoric on the issue of campaign funding has become increasingly heated. Just days after the Supreme Court’s January 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, which removed limits on independent political contributions for corporations and labor unions, Obama derided the decision in his State of the Union address.
“With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections,” he said. “I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people.”
In August 2010, just as the midterm elections were heating up, Obama used his weekly address to denounce the political advertising funded by “shadowy groups with harmless-sounding names,” and vowed to fight the status quo.
“We can not allow a corporate takeover of our democracy,” he said. “Let's challenge every elected official who benefits from these ads to defend this practice or join us is stopping it.”
A couple of months later, the president described Super PACs as “not just a threat to Democrats … [but also] a threat to our democracy.”
When confronted with a decision to embrace or reject the very groups he claimed to despise, however, Obama ultimately opted for political expediency.
After heavy spending from conservative Super PACs like American Crossroads and Freedomworks Action helped Republicans retake the House in 2010, Obama quickly reconsidered his opposition, tacitly green-lighting Democratic efforts to counter the GOP. His political team began planning to raise $1 billion for his reelection effort.
Fundraising has been slower than Obama’s team would have liked—Obama’s campaign has so far raised just $125 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—and many see this shortfall as the impetus for the decision to seek help from third-party groups.
Some question if President Obama was ever committed to tamping down Super PAC spending. Priorities USA, the liberal Super PAC run by former Obama aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, made the first major media buy of the campaign cycle in May 2011, running ads in South Carolina attacking Mitt Romney over his support for Medicare reform.
Brad Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, said the president’s change of heart was utterly predictable. “Anybody who's been paying attention would not be surprised,” he said. “This administration has regularly shown that it could flexible with its vaunted ethics rules whenever its political needs are at stake.”
Obama’s embrace of Super PACs highlights what observers on both sides of the political spectrum consider a major shortcoming of his first three years in office. Despite campaigning on a pledge to reduce the role of special interests throughout the federal government, Obama has failed significantly in this regard.
“I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over,” he said on Nov. 10, 2007 in Des Moines, Iowa. “They have not funded my campaign, they will not run my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president.”
Bob Edgar, president of the liberal advocacy group Common Cause, said in a statement after the Super PAC reversal that if Obama has simply kept his promise to reform the campaign finance rules and increase transparency in Washington, “our political system would be healthier and this would be less of an issue.”
Politifact.com, a non-partisan watchdog website, has examined a number of President Obama’s campaign statements regarding the role of lobbyists and special interests, and determined that most of them deserve a “promise broken” designation. For instance, during the 2008 campaign, Obama said “lobbyists won’t find a job in my White House.”
But, as Politifact notes, although the president signed an executive order codifying this pledge on his first full day in office, the administration has made use of a loophole in the order that permits “waivers” for former lobbyists to serve. In some cases, the administration has hired former lobbyists without a waiver and without disclosing details to the public.
At the same time, federal lobbying expenditures have totaled roughly $10.2 billion since Obama took office in 2009, an average of $3.4 billion per year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That represents a significant increase compared to the Bush Administration, during which lobbying expenditures averaged about $2.4 billion annually.
Neither Obama’s newfound support of Super PACs nor his failure to deliver on key campaign promises has prevented some liberal bloggers from applauding the president’s actions.
“Dems have a choice,” wrote the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent. “Either they can lead by example—which is to say, by setting an example that Republicans will never agree to—and give the GOP a lopsided advantage in outside spending and the tsunami of ads it will finance. Or they can play by the rules as Republicans have defined them, and continue to work to change those rules.”
Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress concurred: “President Obama didn’t just make the right decision, he made the right decision for people who believe that American democracy cannot be sold to the highest bidder.”