The news reports that President Obama was courting large campaign donors stirred complaints that this will put him even deeper into political hock to fat cat donors and the corporate rich if re-elected. This was the oft-heard knock against Obama in 2008. A study by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute did confirm that a sizable number of large donors oiled Obama's campaign. The big bucks Obama got from America's leading top cap political financiers supposedly was smoking gun proof that he had broke his promise that his campaign would be a populist financed campaign based on the nickels and dimes of tens of thousands of individual contributors. The inference was that Obama would be a hopeless captive of Wall Street and corporate interests.
This ignored too much then about what it takes to win the White House and it ignores it even more now. Obama, nor any other presidential candidate, could be competitive in a hard-fought general election fight without the tens of millions that lobbyists, PACs, corporations, Wall Street, and labor unions shove into a presidential candidate's campaign coffers. With two exceptions, the best financially well-heeled candidate has won every presidential primary campaign since 1980. The 2008 presidential primary and general election was no exception.
Hillary Clinton was the near consensus early odds-on favorite to bag the Democratic nomination. Her failure had nothing to do with campaign bumbles, policy stumbles, or voter rejection. She simply ran out of money to be competitive with Obama in the smaller state primaries. That enabled Obama to rack up what ultimately proved to be an insurmountable delegate lead. It was the same in the general election. Obama had a bulging campaign chest. Republican presidential foe John McCain didn't. It was the financial head of stem that Obama had built up coming out of the primary battle with Clinton that made the difference for Obama in being able to saturate the airwaves with his campaign pledges and assaults on McCain. None of this comes cheap. In 2004, Bush and Democratic presidential contender John Kerry shelled out more than one quarter of a billion dollars on assorted media and advertising expenses alone. The figure spent on media was higher for Obama and McCain. There is no other way to reach and try to sell millions on the candidate's message.
The fault for the outrageous cost of a presidential campaign is certainly not with Obama. It just points up the bitter reality that politics is a hard, dirty, cash-soaked game, and those with the most cash will always have the edge. But Obama even while bound to play within the tightly constricted rules of the big money presidential financial money game, has taken two major steps that at least could point the way for shaving some of the hard edge off of the built-in advantage the rich have in determining elections. He has not taken money directly from corporate lobbyists and maintained that he would aggressively seek contributions from small donors. In 2008, more than 60 percent of his final take came from donors that gave less than $1,000.
Obama took much heat for opting out of the public financing system. This again was supposedly more evidence that Obama had betrayed his pledge to be the little guy's candidate and was a naked grab for big dollars from the wealthy. That was not the reason. Obama faced two behemoth obstacles that McCain didn't. He had fought a bruising and costly Democratic primary fight with Clinton that drained millions from his campaign coffers. Given the past history of presidential campaigns the expectation was that McCain would be able to raise untold millions through independent expenditure committees. In the past that was the bread and butter for GOP candidates. These committees and donors are not bound by the strict reporting rules of the Federal Elections Commission. They've bankrolled GOP candidates with unlimited funds through this backdoor channel.
This didn't happen with McCain in part because he agreed to accept public financing and that sent a strong signal that his campaign would play it close to the vest in terms of where the dollars came from and how they were spent. Then there was the financial meltdown in the crucial two months before the November vote. McCain looked to many rich donors like a certain loser. It would have been money down the drain.
The 2012 campaign will not be a rerun of 2008. The presumptive GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney is every bit the cash cow that Obama is. He will also have an advantage that McCain didn't. That's the Supreme Court's decision that allows corporations to give directly to campaigns. The early signs are that corporations will again give big to the GOP. Romney will turn the tables and hammer Obama on his alleged financial and economic failures. He will ask the question Reagan asked Carter during their 1980 presidential debate "are you better off than you were four years ago." The question worked again when Obama asked it about the GOP in 2008. History shows a president's fate hinges on how voters answer that question.
That costs money, and lots of it, to convince millions to answer yes. It's money that Obama has no choice but to raise.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst and Monday co-host of the Al Sharpton Show. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com
Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson.