WASHINGTON — In a reversal, President Barack Obama is embracing the big-money fundraising groups he assailed as a "threat to democracy" on the grounds they let money corrode elections. His shift is a pragmatic move to win re-election, and a concession that his team had no choice but to catch up and go along with today's supercharged rules.
Swamped by outside Republican groups in fundraising so far, Obama belatedly decided to give his blessing to so-called super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals. Both Obama's campaign and the White House maintain that the president does not support today's rules but realized belatedly he must play by them to give himself a competitive chance at a second term.
"He's not saying that the system is healthy or good," said Obama spokesman Jay Carney, who was pressed repeatedly about whether Obama's move was hypocrisy. "He is making the decision, his campaign is making the decision, that the rules are what they are. And they cannot play by a different set of rules than Republicans are playing."
That's not consistent with what Obama has said about the groups, though. And now, by putting strategy above all else, Obama opened himself to criticism that he had compromised on principle and succumbed to the rules of the same Washington game he pledged to change.
Obama has opposed the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United case. It stripped away certain limits on campaign contributions and led to the explosion of outside fundraising groups, which can receive donations from non-profit groups that conceal donors. The new super PACs can't coordinate directly with campaigns but have already played a major role in the Republican primary contests, supporting millions of dollars' worth of negative advertising in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida.
During his 2010 State of the Union speech, Obama accused the Supreme Court of reversing "a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections."
Months later, campaigning for Democrats before the 2010 midterm elections, Obama railed against corporate interests spending money directly to sway federal elections, calling it a "threat to our democracy." He urged supporters in his hometown of Chicago that fall to "fight their millions of dollars with millions of voices."
Obama has now flip-flopped on campaign finance for a second time in as many campaigns after vowing to rein in the role of big money in politics. Four years ago, he broke a pledge to accept taxpayer money from the public financing system and agree to accompany spending limits if his Republican opponent did. The move helped Obama financially overwhelm Republican John McCain and capture the White House.
This time, Obama's campaign is urging its top donors to support Priorities USA Action, a super PAC led by two former Obama aides that has struggled to compete with the tens of millions of dollars collected by Republican-backed outside groups. Campaign officials confirmed Tuesday that the president had personally signed off on the decision.
Former Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a champion for campaign finance reform, said Obama was "wrong to embrace the corrupt corporate politics of Citizens United through the use of super PACs – organizations that raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations and the richest individuals, sometimes in total secrecy. It's not just bad policy; it's also dumb strategy."
Republicans jumped on Obama's embrace of the super PACs and made clear they would use it against him. "Just another broken promise," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said of Obama's decision.
Obama's team defended the decision, saying they were simply playing by the new campaign finance rules and could not allow themselves to be deluged by Republican attack ads financed by outside groups.
Campaign manager Jim Messina said the president's campaign "can't allow for two sets of rules" in which the Republican presidential nominee benefits from "unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm," a telling reference to what amounts to a political war of advertising.
Messina made clear there were limits to Obama's blessing. Senior campaign officials, along with some White House officials and Cabinet members, would attend and speak at fundraising events for Priorities USA Action but would not directly ask for money. The officials would only speak at fundraising events that disclose donors.
The president, Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama would not be part of the effort and would remain focused on Obama's campaign, officials said, arguing that it contrasted with Republican front-runner Mitt Romney's appearance before an outside group supporting him.
At the White House, Carney deflected charges that the president's shift was hypocritical, insisting Obama's opinion on super PACs and the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case had not changed. "He takes a dim view of it," Carney said. "He will continue to press for change even if it requires a constitutional amendment."
Asked whether Obama wrestled with the decision, Carney said, "I think you can divine that, that this is a decision that was carefully considered, by the fact that it's February of 2012 and you've already seen in the Republican Party how much money is being raised by these organizations."
Days before the campaign's announcement on the super PACs, Obama bemoaned the influence of big money in presidential campaigns in a weekend interview with NBC News, saying the Supreme Court's decision had made outside money an unavoidable part of the political process. "It is very hard to be able to get your message out without having some resources," Obama said.
Obama's campaign has voluntarily released the names of its top donors and criticized Republicans for not doing the same. As it did in 2008, the Obama campaign has said it wouldn't take money from registered federal lobbyists, but there are other ways for power-players to influence Washington.
A recent Associated Press review found major donors to super PACs – supporting both Obama and Romney – have business at stake before the federal government. They include executives at energy companies trying to strip climate change rules, and a prominent hospital's director who pushed for Army research and Medicaid changes.
Obama's campaign and its supporters at Priorities USA Action and the Democratic National Committee already have outspent their Republican counterparts by nearly 2 to 1, records show. Financial reports as of late 2011 show groups supporting Obama's re-election effort garnered at least $252 million in contributions, leaving about $95.9 million cash on hand.
But the fundraising gap may be starting to narrow.
While Obama-supportive groups have largely outraised Republicans, including Romney's campaign, GOP-leaning groups like Restore Our Future and the Republican National Committee have brought the GOP total to $226 million. That haul includes roughly $51 million raised from both American Crossroads and its non-profit arm, Crossroads GPS. Democrats say they fear an avalanche of a half-billion dollars from the outside groups.
Other major Republican donors, for their part, have yet to get behind Romney fully. The family of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has pledged $11 million to help Newt Gingrich, although operatives say Adelson is likely to support Romney if he secures the GOP nomination. That, combined with yet-to-be-spent cash from other major fundraisers, could tip the balance of power in Romney's favor.
By signaling the president's support for the outside fundraising group, Obama's team made clear it's a risk they're not willing to take.