WASHINGTON -- Senior Obama administration officials confirmed on Thursday that President Barack Obama would be appearing at two super PAC events this election cycle to help support Democratic candidates.
The officials, who would speak only on condition that they not be quoted or identified, said that these events would not be fundraisers. Instead, the president would speak before gatherings hosted by House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC in order to draw an audience to their cause (electing House and Senate Democrats, respectively). After he was done and gone, they added, the checks would be exchanged.
But Obama's decision to even make these appearances -- which was reported in late February -- reflects another step in his continued embrace of a campaign financing system that he has long deplored.
After the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling paved the way for super PACs to become major election players, the president and his allies sharply criticized the decision and what it portended. They argued that allowing for unlimited corporate and individual contributions to groups that were geared toward influencing elections was a cancer on the campaign system. The White House fully backed efforts to reverse the decision and at least bring more transparency into the process with the introduction of the Disclose Act.
But that legislation stalled in Congress. Democrats suffered a beating in the 2010 election cycle. And the president was faced with the vexing proposition that his general election opponent in 2012 would have a robust super PAC backing while he maintained fidelity to the reformer's cause. He chose to authorize a super PAC, Priorities USA, to support him.
It wasn't much of a shock. In 2008, Obama had abandoned the public financing system for presidential campaigns when it became clear that opting out gave him a huge financial edge over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). He was opportunistic then. In 2012, he was merely choosing not to fight with one hand tied behind his back, as aides explained.
The new policy came with caveats -- or, at least, conditions that helped portray the president as not entirely beholden to a campaign finance system he derided. Neither he nor the vice president nor the first lady would appear at super PAC events.
The president would ultimately cross that line -- as Mark Halperin and John Heilemann reported in their book Double Down -- appearing at a Priorities USA event organized by DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Still, because that Katzenberg event was not publicized or really acknowledged by the White House, an ostensible line still existed -- at least until the current cycle.
Senior administration officials said Thursday that the president's decision to actually appear at super PAC events is being driven by the same political calculus that persuaded him to fudge prior boundaries: Democrats can't unilaterally disarm. The officials conceded that the president's position on super PACs has evolved. But they also pointed to some remaining lines to portray this as a less-than-full embrace of the super PAC's role in politics.
The first line was the president's continued support for legislation that (while very much stalled) would bring more transparency to campaign finance. The second was the fact that while Obama would be appearing at super PAC events, he would not be doing so for the purposes of raising money for his own election. He's not on the ballot now, the officials argued, which makes his appearance before House Majority PAC no different than an appearance before Planned Parenthood.
Unremarkably, campaign finance watchdogs see this as a distinction without a difference.
"The fact that President Obama isn’t raising money to spend on himself is irrelevant," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the group Democracy 21. "The President of the United States should not be raising unlimited campaign contributions for anyone. Period. The idea that President Obama is only 'speaking' at a Super PAC event ... but won’t be 'fundraising' is nonsense. Everyone understands the President is there as the main attraction for raising large Super PAC donations."
"Right now our campaign finance system is more loophole than law, and nowhere is that more apparent than what constitutes 'coordination' when it comes to elected officials or candidates fundraising for super PACs," said David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund. "The answer is found in new regulations or a new or reformed election agency that can function as an oversight board. There should be no ability for elected officials or candidates to raise money for so-called independent groups."