Distinction with no Difference

Fine line separates Obama White House, campaign, outside Super PACs

July 30, 2012

During a fundraiser for the pro-Obama Priorities USA Super PAC in March, senior White House adviser David Plouffe gave a speech to two-dozen major Democratic donors. When it came time to ask donors to open up their wallets, however, Plouffe left the room.

The abrupt exit illustrates how the Obama campaign and the White House divide activities in the new world of Super PAC politics.

FEC regulations on Super PACs prohibit expenditures "made in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion" of candidates and their campaigns. The Hatch Act forbids administration officials from participating in campaign events.

The groups supporting President Obama’s reelection effort, however, are filled with former administration staffers and old friends who frequently visit the White House, and who give the campaign the ability to raise unlimited, secret funds—something Obama once claimed to deplore.

"Super PACs are making a total mockery of the anti-coordination rules of the Federal Election Commission," Craig Holman, a lobbyist for campaign finance reform group Public Citizen, told Businessweek recently. "These are rules that are easily side-stepped, which throws out the entire notion of campaign-finance limits."

"Essentially, the only coordination the rules limit is coordination of spending," said Viveca Novak, the communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics. "They don’t want them getting together and saying, ‘You’re going to spend money here, and here’s what we’re going to do.’ But they can coordinate fundraising. They can talk about a lot of things, just not their spending strategies."

David Keating, the president of the Center for Competitive Politics, said the rules are more extensive.

"The rules cover a lot more than that," Keating said. "You can’t have people who work for the campaign come over to a Super PAC. You can’t have the internal plans or strategies of the campaign you’re trying to help, etc."

FEC rules state that coordination has occurred if a PAC produces an advertisement at the request of suggestion of a campaign, if a campaign was materially involved in creating the ad, and even if there were "substantial discussions" between the PAC and the campaign about the advertisement.

The difficulty in proving coordination means the FEC rules are largely toothless, however.

Obama himself used to be against super PACs before he was for them. The president, a critic of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case that allowed unlimited election spending by outside groups, previously professed disdain for "shadowy groups with harmless sounding names" that pose "a threat to our democracy."

However, in February, worried by the size and strength of the conservative groups aligned against it, the Obama campaign reversed course and announced it would begin to work with Super PACs.

"The campaign has decided to do what we can, consistent with the law, to support Priorities USA in its effort to counter the weight of the GOP Super PAC," Jim Messina, Obama campaign manager and former White House deputy chief of staff for operations, wrote in a blog post for the campaign. "We will do so only in the knowledge and with the expectation that all of its donations will be fully disclosed as required by law to the Federal Election Commission."

"What this change means practically: Senior campaign officials as well as some White House and Cabinet officials will attend and speak at Priorities USA fundraising events," Messina continued. "While campaign officials may be appearing at events to amplify our message, these folks won't be soliciting contributions for Priorities USA."

Since the campaign gave its blessing to super PACs, other Obama administration members have appeared at Priorities USA fundraisers, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett.

A few months after the announcement, Priorities USA and the Obama campaign both used the same failed Kansas City steel company in attack ads portraying Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as a ruthless businessman.

The campaign denied any coordination took place.

The numerous staff connections between the White House, the Obama campaign, Democratic campaign committees, and the Super PACs supporting the president in his reelection bid have also drawn scrutiny.Priorities USA founders Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney are both former White House staffers. Sweeney was chief of staff to former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Burton was the principal deputy press secretary to Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary who is now a campaign surrogate for Obama.

Both Sweeney and Burton were staffers under Emanuel while he was head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Teddy Johnston joined Priorities USA in 2011 to lead its fundraising efforts, leaving his position at the International Trade Association in the Commerce Department. Obama appointed him to the agency in 2009. Before that, he was the finance director of Obama’s Florida campaign efforts.

Priorities USA is only one of several independent spending groups that form the engine behind the Democratic political machine.

For example, Priorities USA formed a joint fundraising committee in April with American Bridge, another Super PAC focused on opposition research against Republicans.

David Brock, who also created Media Matters for America, founded American Bridge. As reported by the Daily Caller, Media Matters was part of weekly strategy calls at the White House that also included members of the Center for American Progress.

Brock has visited the White House three times since American Bridge 21st Century was founded.

Shauna Daly, research director at American Bridge 21st Century, was appointed research director in the White House Counsel’s office in 2009 by President Obama. Prior to that, she was the deputy research director for the Obama for America campaign and the deputy research director at the Democratic National Committee.

Daly visited the White House on February 7, 2011, to meet with Tara Corrigan, the executive assistant to the White House political director.

American Bridge and Priorities USA share research and polling.

"Our research helps to inform their polling; their polling helps us decide where we want to do our media hits," American Bridge communications director Chris Harris told Roll Call.

Donors are limited to $2,500 per candidate for the general election, while Super-PACs can take in unlimited contributions from individuals, groups, and corporations.

Additionally, these independent groups allow the Obama campaign to shield the identity of some of its supporters. American Bridge 21st Century is a 527 organization, legally required to disclose its donors. But its sister organization, the American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, is a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization—not required to reveal any of its donors.

When reached by phone, American Bridge communications director Chris Harris declined to comment on alleged coordination between his organization and the Obama campaign, "beyond saying that there is none."

The FEC, per its policy, declined to comment.

Priorities USA, the Obama for America campaign, and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.