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Walmart Moves Into the White House

How money changed the president's tune on America's largest retailer

Sylvia Mathews Burwell / AP
• March 5, 2013 4:58 am

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President Barack Obama on Monday nominated Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Walmart Foundation, to be director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Obama hiring from the ranks of Walmart is the latest development in the company’s remarkable transition from enemy of Obama and the left to one of his most reliable partners in the business community.

The relationship between Obama and the retail giant got off to a bad start.

Obama declared that he would no longer shop at the store during his first presidential campaign. And Michelle Obama decided to leave the board of a major Walmart supplier.

But things changed after Obama became president.

Walmart became a founding member of Business Forward, the Obama-friendly group that teaches participating businesses how to put campaign spin on economic issues, almost immediately following the 2008 election.

Business Forward has become a reliable partner of the administration. The organization’s members receive extraordinary access to the White House in exchange for donations and support for the president’s agenda.

Business Forward boasted during the fiscal cliff negotiations that it was hosting high-level Obama administration officials in a series of private briefings for Walmart and other member groups. The businesses returned the favor by parroting the talking points they were fed in the briefings to the media.

Jim Doyle and Bert Kaufman, two Democratic political consultants who run a consulting firm out of the Business Forward office, lead Business Forward and are open about how it is intended to work.

"The idea was to invite these [executives] back in town and get a sense of what’s at stake with the fiscal cliff," Kaufman said. "They go back home and talk to their colleagues, their clients, and their networks. They write op-eds, talk to reporters, and talk about the need for a balanced approach."

Business Forward has also emerged as a financial backer for the progressive movement.

The group sponsored a meeting in January between Democratic donors and the officials of Organizing For Action, the newly formed 501(c)(4) that grew out of the Obama campaign and is poised to use the campaign’s infrastructure to advance the policies of the administration.

The administration has been publically open about its improved relationship with Walmart. Michelle Obama went from hiding connections with Walmart to being one of its biggest cheerleaders.

The First Lady visited a Walmart in Springfield, Mo., last week to celebrate its progress on making healthy food more available in its stores.

The visit was part of her five-year partnership with Walmart on her signature "Let’s Move" campaign. The partnership was announced in 2011.

Longtime Democratic operative Leslie Dach, who personally advised President Bill Clinton during his impeachment and now heads public relations and government affairs for Walmart, was with her for both events.

Dach has been a driving force in what the New York Times described as Walmart’s "aggressive push to attract political support from Democrats and liberals."

The White House is giving Dach an opportunity to make his case. Dach appears in the White House visitor log more than 25 times and has had meetings with high-level officials such as Obama’s former Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel.

These partnerships do not come for nothing, however.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Dach contributed $4,600 to Obama’s 2008 campaign and an additional $23,900 to the Democratic National Committee.

Dach also hosted a fundraising event during last year’s Democratic National Convention. The event was billed as a reception honoring John Podesta and Neera Tanden of the far-left Center for American Progress.

The Center for American Progress itself has received between $500,000 and $1 million dollars from Walmart and avoids criticizing it.

Not everybody in the Democratic Party is keen on giving Walmart a free pass, especially not the unions.

Walmart contributed $50,000 worth of gift cards for the Democratic National Convention, but union forces within the party forced the convention committee to return the gift cards because the contribution was a violation of the DNC’s ban on corporate donations.

Walmart also faces significant challenges from union-backed groups such as OUR Walmart, which came to a head when the group called for mass protests at Walmart stores across the country during the holiday season.

Interestingly, a group called WakeUpWalmart.com planned almost identical protests against Walmart during the 2006 holiday season. Obama called the group that year to say he was proud of the work it was doing.

Obama stayed silent on the issue during this year’s holiday season.