Unlimited Access

Column: Want to meet Obama? It will cost you $500k

March 1, 2013

One of my favorite scenes in Lincoln takes place at the White House. Petitioners from across the United States wait in the lobby for an audience with the president. Lincoln meets with a Missouri couple engaged in a property dispute. He tells them a story about his lawyer days and sends them, with kind words of support, to the Capitol. It’s an affecting moment, reminding the audience of how close Americans used to be with their representatives, including the chief executive.

Yeah, well, it was nice while it lasted. Those days are over—needless to say. Unless, that is, you happen to have a spare $500,000. In which case you too can meet with the president, on a quarterly basis, provided the $500,000 finds its way to Organizing for Action (OFA), the nonprofit, social welfare organization "established to support President Obama in achieving enactment of the national agenda Americans voted for on Election Day 2012."

Now, please understand, Organizing for Action is happy to accept donations of any amount, from one dollar to a one-trillion-dollar coin. But the political aces that run OFA—the group’s chairman Jim Messina was Obama’s campaign manager and its executive director Jon Carson was in charge of the White House Office of Public Engagement—also appreciate the power of incentives. They’re not fools.

So, reports the New York Times, a $50,000 donation will open the door to an upcoming "founders summit" at a "hotel near the White House" where high rollers "will mingle" with Messina and Carson. "Giving or raising $500,000 or more," on the other hand, "puts donors on a national advisory board" for OFA and allows these donors "the privilege of attending quarterly meetings with the president, along with other meetings at the White House." Where, one assumes, they can bring up any property disputes in which they, like the Missouri couple in the movie, might be engaged.

Incorporated under Section 501(c)4 of the U.S Tax Code, Organizing for Action is under no obligation to disclose these unlimited donations. The Frequently Asked Questions section of the group’s website is quick to assure us, however, that "OFA will make full and regular disclosures over the course of the year of donations received," beginning "on a schedule to be announced in the near future." The Frequently Asked Questions section is also quick to assure us that "neither OFA nor its chapters will be involved in any way in elections or partisan political activity." It just happens to run the Twitter account of the president of the United States, which has more than 27 million followers, and to have organized a national "Day of Action" last week at which volunteers in 80 congressional districts rallied for stricter gun laws. Not partisan or political at all.

And not particularly consistent or ethical, either, for a president who for years on end has bemoaned the role of wealth in politics and demanded greater regulation of campaign finance. That "flexibility" Obama promised to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on missiles? Also a good description of his attitude toward influence peddling, it would seem. Indeed, so tangled up in campaign-finance knots is Obama that he’s alienated the reform crowd that once supported him proudly. The creation of Organizing for Action, and its centrality in an ever-expanding network of progressive groups coordinating policy and pressure campaigns, has led to a clarifying moment in which the idealists, leaving the hacks behind, have jumped from the Obama train.

"If President Obama is serious about his often-expressed desire to rein in big money in politics, he should shut down Organizing for Action and disavow any plan to schedule regular meetings with its major donors," Common Cause president Bob Edgar said in a press release. "It’s embarrassing that the largest grassroots organization in history would abandon its own beliefs," Cole Leystra, executive director of Russ Feingold’s group Progressives United, wrote in a blog item headlined "This is What Selling Access Looks Like." "This is taking business as usual to new heights in this city," said Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer, during an appearance on a former rap journalist’s lunchtime MSNBC show.

Wertheimer seemed somewhat out of place on "NOW with Alex Wagner," on which a panel of four journalists and operatives, spanning the ideological gamut from Rick Hertzberg to Katrina vanden Heuvel, glare at the camera from stools and condescend to their political and intellectual inferiors. Pointing out weaknesses in Democratic politicians is not the "in" thing on MSNBC, you may be aware. Two panelists in particular shook their heads in sorrow when Wertheimer stated his principles. The campaign finance reformer is "a wonderful man," said former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, but also an "incredibly naïve" one. Rendell is a senior adviser at Greenhill & Company, which hired him and "his broad network of important relationships" in 2011 to promote infrastructure projects that depend on taxpayer dollars. No naïf, he.

President Obama is "committed to reform," but it would be "stupid" to let those dastardly Koch brothers "just roll over you," added Bill Burton, the former White House press aide who in January joined the "Democratic-leaning public affairs firm Global Strategy Group" after serving as senior adviser to Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama Super PAC that spent $65 million last year tarring Mitt Romney’s good name. Obama was against Super PACs, which also can raise unlimited amounts of money, before he was for them, just as he was with dark-money groups such as Organizing for Action. In each case—and in the case of the president’s support for same-sex marriage—Obama’s position followed the money. It would have been "stupid" to do otherwise, according to Bill Burton.

Rational choice theorists would agree. They have long assumed that man is a selfish actor who calculates his every move for maximum advantage. And a survey of Obama world at the beginning of his second administration would not prove them wrong. All of the players are cashing in. No one, it seems, has any idea who will be paying Messina to sprinkle his Pixie Dust on public officials for private benefit. But look at how the Oneida Indian Nation paid Obama’s pollster Joel Benenson to survey New York attitudes on legalized casino gambling. Look at how the Weinstein Company, in preparation for the Academy Awards, hired former Obama campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter to promote, without disclosing the financial arrangement, Silver Linings Playbook on her Twitter feed and the web extra of "This Week." Look at how the property-shark owner of a failing political magazine, himself an Obama donor and former staffer, paid former Obama communications director Anita Dunn to promote the "re-launch" of his publication and maybe, just maybe, help score an Oval Office interview and photo shoot with POTUS.

"When the president ran in 2007," a member of the White House Press Corps told Jay Carney on Monday, "he used this exact language. He said, ‘The cynics, the lobbyists, and the special interests who have turned government into a game only they can play, they write the checks and you get stuck with the bills. They get the access while you get to write a letter.’ Doesn’t [Organizing for Action] in many ways, though, create a situation that does blur that line of exactly what he was campaigning against in 2007?"

Carney dodged, of course. How could he have done otherwise? The facts are not in dispute. Undisclosed donors are writing unlimited checks to gain access to the president. And the rest of us can’t even get into the White House lobby.

Published under: Obama Administration , OFA