Why is Obama now supporting super PACs?

President Obama has reversed himself, and is now allowing cabinet officials and senior White House advisers to raise funds for 'Priorities USA Action,' a super PAC.

By , DCDecoder

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    President Barack Obama speaks during a fundraiser in Washington last month.
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You might say President Obama was against "super PAC" fundraising before he was for it.

From the very beginning, Mr. Obama castigated the US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United (read the court’s opinion, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) less than a week after it was handed down. In his January 2010 State of the Union message, Obama said thus:

"Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign companies – to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that’s why I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong."

That ticked Justice Samuel Alito off something fierce – he was caught mouthing “not true” after the president’s 2010 State of the Union remarks – and he has joined Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia in abstaining from attending the State of the Union since that time.

Recommended: Election 101: Five basics about 'super PACs' and 2012 campaign money

So fast-forward to late Monday night, when news broke that Obama, in the words of POLITICO, offered a “reluctant blessing” for his campaign to raise money for the main – but flagging – Democratic super PAC, "Priorities USA."

(Why do we say flagging? Because Priorities raised $4.2 million in 2011 versus an astounding $51 million for its GOP rival, "American Crossroads," and nearly $18 million for a pro-Romney super PAC. More on Crossroads shortly.)

Well, there’s no such thing as a “reluctant blessing.” Either it’s blessed or it’s not.

And the Obama campaign, according to The New York Times, has given its blessing to super PAC fundraising – even if they keep a smattering of fig leaves affixed to a few sensitive spots. To wit:

"Aides said the president had signed off on a plan to dispatch cabinet officials, senior advisers at the White House, and top campaign staff members to deliver speeches on behalf of Mr. Obama at fund-raising events for Priorities USA Action, the leading Democratic 'super PAC'….

Neither the president, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., nor their wives will attend fund-raising events or solicit donations for the Democratic group. A handful of officials from the administration and the campaign will appear on behalf of Mr. Obama, aides said, but will not directly ask for money."

What’s the rationale for the turn? Crossroads and Mitt Romney’s super PAC, "Restore our Future," are on a roll.

After extolling the president’s willingness to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision, even his willingness to go so far as a constitutional amendment, Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina noted in a blog post:

 "this cycle, our campaign has to face the reality of the law as it currently stands.

Over the last few months, Super PACs affiliated with Republican presidential candidates have spent more than $40 million on television and radio, almost all of it for negative ads.

Last week, filings showed that the Super PAC affiliated with Mitt Romney’s campaign raised $30 million in 2011 from fewer than 200 contributors, most of them from the financial sector. Governor Romney personally helped raise money for this group, which is run by some of his closest allies.

Meanwhile, other Super PACs established for the sole purpose of defeating the President – along with 'nonprofits' that also aren’t required to disclose the sources of their funding – have raised more than $50 million. In the aggregate, these groups are expected to spend half a billion dollars, above and beyond what the Republican nominee and party are expected to commit to try to defeat the President.

With so much at stake, we can’t allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm."

Besides calling the Obama campaign’s decision a “cynical course reversal,” Crossroads pointed reporters toward an October 2010 NYT piece detailing Obama’s harsh criticism of super PACs. In short, Obama argues that super PACs are a threat to American democracy as we know it.

"You can’t let it happen," Obama told thousands of supporters gathered at a school park in a predominantly African-American, working-class neighborhood in northern Philadelphia. "Don’t let them hijack your agenda. The American people deserve to know who’s trying to sway their elections, and you can’t stand by and let the special interests drown out the voices of the American people....

"You don’t know," he said here. “It could be the oil industry, it could be the insurance industry, it could even be foreign-owned corporations. You don’t know because they don’t have to disclose. Now that’s not just a threat to Democrats, that’s a threat to our democracy."

And while Democrats are trying to get into the game, that more recent New York Times article raises another tough question for the Obama team: After decrying super PACs for so long, will their moneymen (and ladies) rush to prop up Priorities USA?

As a top adviser to George Soros, one of the left’s wealthiest benefactors, put it:

“It takes either a very sophisticated or very cynical person to decry the nefarious influence of money on politics and then turn around and write a check for $5 million to influence elections.”

Or even more bitingly, as one top Democratic fundraiser recently told a top Priorities USA official, per POLITICO: “Is this what we’ve become?”

David Grant

  • What’s a super PAC? See the Monitor’s explainer here.
  • Love yourself some super PAC that’s always been a big fan of itself? Check out Stephen Colbert’s/Jon Stewart’s super PAC here.

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