In June 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama told a New York crowd that much of the big money influence peddling in Washington is illegal and that he'd crack down on it once in office. Five months later in an Iowa speech he was even blunter. He warned corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington were over. The difference between what Bush, Clinton, Bush Sr., Reagan and every occupant of the White House did and what the Obama White House does in showering perks on fat cat donors is that the other presidents knew enough to keep quiet about it. Obama didn't. He denounced the practice. It practically became his campaign mantra.
It's not political rocket science stuff to know that the White House has always been for sale to the highest bidders. Obama, or any other Oval Office occupant, would not have a prayer of getting to the White House without the tens of millions that lobbyists, PACs, corporations, Wall Street, and labor unions stuff into their campaign coffers. Even as Obama revved up the crowd in New York and Iowa with his promise to chase the money changers out of the White House, he cut deals in the Senate to back more industry friendly tariff suspension bills than all other presidential candidates in 2008 accept one. His oft made claim that his campaign was bankrolled by the nickels and dimes of the little people was part truth, and in bigger part hyperbole. The list of Obama's banking and corporate donors read like a who's who of corporate and Wall Street America; the same as other winning presidents.
A study by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute smashed the myth that small donors oiled Obama's campaign. The Institute found that Obama had only marginally more small donors than Bush had in 2004 (Obama-26 percent, Bush-25 percent). Obama netted nearly eighty percent more money from large donors (those giving $1,000 or more total) than from small donors. He got a whopping $ 200 million plus from mega donors and bundlers. That's the dubious practice of combining small donations from special interests and the wealthy to skirt campaign financing limits.
Obama gets a faint flutter of criticism for ladling out special favors to the rich not only because he promised that the big money crowd would be banned in Boston from the White House, but because legions of voters actually voted for him because they believed he'd ban the wealth crowd. He talked so much about transparency, accountability, and a new way of doing business at the White House that it was hard not to really believe his pledge, especially considering the way his predecessor nakedly waved the White House for sale sign to corporate cronies.
Obama's spreading the welcome mat wide at the White House front door for big donors doesn't make him a hypocrite, con man, or duplicitous. It just points up the hard reality that politics is a hard, dirty, cash soaked game, and those with the most cash will always have the president's ear, no matter the president. This makes White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs sound silly when he tried to pretty up Obama's big donor tryst by claiming that thousands of people have visited the White House and they haven't given thousands. True, but those thousands don't use the executive bowling alley, slap high fives with the president while eyeballing the Super bowl with him at the White House movie theater, bag special invitations to White House dinners, luncheons and banquets, and favored spots on the dais at his Inaugural.
None of the thousands who Gibbs said has visited the White House donated $500,000 to Obama's campaign and then were invited to play golf with the president. Swiss bank UBS is Obama's half million dollar golfing partner. This is the same bank that was accused of aiding and abetting felony tax evasion schemes. A potential indictment against USB was quashed by the Treasury and State Departments.
It's even more ludicrous for Gibbs to make out that public disclosure of the donor favors is proof that Obama means what he says about making transparency the watchword in his administration. The only reason that the donors and the amounts they gave is known is because a politically hostile newspaper snooped around and got the goods on the White House largesse to the rich.
In a much heralded speech to an AFL-CIO convention in April 2008, Obama thundered that he was the only candidate who didn't take a dime from Washington lobbyists, and that the lobbyists and special interests would not run his administration. Factually he's correct. He hadn't taken a dime directly from them but the favored few wealthy donors who scoff down eats at White House dinners and receptions and bowl and watch TV with the president don't have an L scribbled on their backside. They do have money and influence, and represent industries that want and demand favors from the president. Judging from the looks of things they're well positioned to make sure they get what they want.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January, 2010.