SAN FRANCISCO — President Barack Obama is preaching an economic message aimed at the 99 percent and raising campaign cash among the 1 percent, walking an election year tight rope complicated by the need for hundreds of millions of dollars at a time of high unemployment.
At a beachside community in southern California on Thursday, fresh off a dinner that included actor George Clooney, Obama was in the middle of a three-day fundraising tour through opulent homes along California's coast – a trip to be bookended by images of the president inside factories talking up job creation.
The president hauled in $750 million in 2008, shattering records, and his campaign has outpaced his Republican opponents, collecting more than $220 million in 2011 even as it faces the prospect of hundreds of millions from GOP-backed outside groups targeting his re-election.
To be sure, Obama's campaign has mastered the art of raising money among the masses. In 2011, the campaign said it received money from 1.3 million donors, including 583,000 people who gave during the final three months of the year. More than 98 percent of supporters gave donations of $250 or less and the average donation was $55.
Yet a list of prominent donors released by the campaign shows nearly 450 well-heeled backers who have collectively steered at least $74.7 million to the president's campaign so far. Fully 62 of them collected at least $500,000 each to give to the campaign, including movie producers Jeffrey Katzenberg and Harvey Weinstein, and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.
California, where Obama scheduled six fundraisers during this three-day trip, figured most prominently on his roster of big-money "bundlers." Sixteen are from California; 13 are from New York.
Fundraising is an inescapable aspect of politics, and candidates from both parties tap deep-pocketed supporters for cash and for help raising more from their network of wealthy friends. Many of those donors are the same ones that Obama is referring to when he tells audiences – whether well-off or working class – that the rich must pay a greater share in taxes.
Obama's campaign pitch is aimed at the middle class. He sharpened his focus in a December speech in Osawatomie, Kan., where he decried a growing inequality between chief executives and their workers. He reprised the theme in his State of the Union address last month and unveiled a budget proposal this month that put a policy sheen on that populist message.
As he pushes his economic agenda and as he raises money, Obama more and more is being forced to juxtapose working-class audiences and posh surroundings.
In Los Angeles, 1,000 Obama supporters watched a performance of the Grammy-winning rock band Foo Fighters on the well-manicured grounds of the home of Brad Bell, a prominent television producer.
"Love the Foo Fighters," Obama told the crowd. "They were tired of winning so many awards, so they said, `Let's do something else tonight.'"
Later, 80 people paying $35,800 apiece attended a dinner at Bell's home, where guests drank wine from Kistler Vineyards and champagne by France's Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. Hollywood celebrities such as Clooney and actor Jim Belushi joined Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and others in a large dining room beneath a soaring chandelier.
In Orange County, Obama's motorcade traveled along the Pacific Ocean to a beachside community in Corona del Mar, where the neighborhood was lined with Mercedes-Benz sedans, Toyota Prius hybrids and even a light-blue Nissan Leaf electric car. Speaking to guests beneath a white tent at the home of real estate developer Jeff Stack, Obama thanked the family for opening its "spectacular home."
The fundraisers contrasted with a more modest official stop in Milwaukee on Wednesday. Obama visited the Master Lock plant where unionized workers manufacture padlocks famous for being "tough under fire."
In San Francisco, Obama made an unscheduled stop in the heart of the city's Chinatown neighborhood, shaking hands with diners and holding a crying baby. After posing for photos, the president pulled out some cash and paid for two bags of dim sum dumplings.
Obama was scheduled to end his three-day trip Friday in Seattle, where he planned to address workers at Boeing's Everett Production Facility.
Republicans have repeatedly cited his high-wattage fundraisers to try to undercut Obama's image with working-class voters. "President Obama campaigned on hope and change, but three years later he's just another typical politician," said Kirsten Kukowski, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said the public generally understands that presidential candidates need to raise money among the wealthy but that the key is to have a consistent message whether they're talking to Hollywood moguls and tech titans or blue-collar workers.
"You certainly do not want to come off where you appear that you're elitist," Lehane said. He said Obama's message has remained consistent that Americans deserve a "fair shake" regardless of their economic background.
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