Why Obama’s flip-flop on super PACs won’t matter

Barack Obama abandoned a campaign finance promise in 2008 and still won the presidential election. That suggests that his new embrace of super PACs might not be too damaging.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Barack Obama speaks in Falls Church, Va., last week. Reversing an earlier stand, President Barack Obama is now encouraging donors to give generously to super PACs that support his campaign.

President Obama’s flip-flop toward embrace of the "super PAC" formed to support his reelection campaign should come as no surprise.

Yes, Mr. Obama railed against the Supreme Court decision that allowed outside groups to support campaigns with unlimited donations, visibly offending some justices over the matter at his 2010 State of the Union address. More recently, he has called them a “threat to democracy.”  

But the super PAC that supports Obama’s reelection, Priorities USA Action, was getting clobbered. It raised just $4.4 million last year. The conservative American Crossroads, the super PAC founded by former George W. Bush political guru Karl Rove, raked in $51 million. The biggest super PAC supporting Mitt Romney, Restore Our Future, brought in more than $30 million.

All told, experts predict the Republican super PACs will collect a half billion dollars for the 2012 election. And Team Obama wasn’t about to “unilaterally disarm,” as campaign manager Jim Messina put it in an e-mail late Monday to supporters.

“The campaign has made clear that they cannot engage in this campaign, they cannot compete effectively ... if they play by a different set of rules,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.

Liberal bloggers largely support Obama’s decision, agreeing that he cannot go into electoral battle under the system he wants, but with the system he has. The most vocal critic has been former Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, co-author of the 2002 campaign-finance law aimed at limiting the role of money in politics.

"This is dancing with the devil. I know a lot of Democrats in D.C. don’t agree, and I understand the desire to do everything possible to win," Mr. Feingold said in a statement. "But this decision will push Democrats to become corporate-lite, and will send us head-on into a battle we know we will lose, because Republicans like Mitt Romney and his friends have and will spend more money."

But chances are, Obama’s flip-flop won’t hurt him with voters. In his first presidential campaign, he initially promised to operate within the public financing system, which would have limited how much he could spend.  By June of 2008, he had changed his mind. In an e-mail to supporters then, Obama declared his independence “from a broken system.” Republican Sen. John McCain, his eventual opponent in the general election, accused him of breaking a promise.

Voters hardly blinked. Obama went on to raise $750 million, and won the presidency. As best we can tell, there weren’t legions of voters who otherwise would have supported Obama but for his broken promise on public financing.

The real challenge for Obama may be finding enough liberal money-bags to open up their checkbooks and match the Republicans in their super PAC giving, or least come in with respectable numbers. The best-known big donor to Democratic causes is billionaire investor George Soros. There’s big money in liberal Hollywood. And there are Obama’s “bundlers,” major donors who solicit additional donations from their personal networks.   

On Monday night, Obama campaign officials had a conference call with major bundlers, explaining the change in policy and encouraging them to donate to the Obama super PAC. According to CNN, one bundler on the call “questioned the effectiveness of the new approach, explaining every large donor of means had already been approached for a donation by Priorities USA.”

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