Top Obama campaign officials opened a window Tuesday on the thinking behind President Obama's belated blessing of the big-money super PACs that arose in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.
The campaign aides said they've been closely watching super PAC spending in the Republican primaries, amazed at the amount of money flowing to shape the results. Then, two weeks ago, the billionaire Koch brothers assembled wealthy conservative donors in Palm Springs, Calif., collecting pledges for even more millions of dollars to be used to deny the president a second term.
All of those factors led to Team Obama's decision, announced late Monday night, to use White House, Cabinet, and campaign officials to encourage donations to Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC of the type the president has long denounced.
“This is a conversation that had been happening among senior advisers for weeks,” a senior campaign official told reporters on Tuesday. He said the strategists were impressed by what he called the “profound impact” of super PAC money in the GOP primaries, citing specifically $30 million by a a super PAC backing likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney and the $500 million goal set by other groups. He added that “obviously there was a meeting with the Koch bothers and a number of special interests a couple of weeks ago, in which additional commitments by special interests to flood the airwaves were secured.”
The decision to encourage super PAC contributions was almost inevitable once the campaign analyzed the numbers in the fundraising reports of various Republican and conservative PACs. Obama’s campaign is comfortably out-raising Romney. But American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS, and the Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, are more than making up the difference.
As reported by National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar, the Obama campaign ended the year with $81.8 million in cash-on-hand. But outside Democratic groups have been little help. Priorities USA banked only $1.5 million, receiving money from just 42 individual donors in the last six months. That put Obama's fundraising advantage at risk.
Campaign officials said the president signed off on the decision after what they called “an evolving conversation.” But one insisted it does not diminish the president’s opposition to the big money flooding the political system. “There is a change in our tactics here. There is not a change in principle on the president’s commitment to change our campaign finance system.”
The officials also said they believe the campaign organization they have built across the country will give them an advantage over the Republican nominee. “It is the campaign itself that will be persuading voters on the ground in key states,” one official said. “But we can’t afford hundreds of millions of dollars by corporate special interests on the air drowning out our message while we’re fighting hand-to-hand on the ground.”
Obama took plenty of criticism on Tuesday from Republicans. The Republican National Committee compiled a rapid-response Web video called "A 'Super' Failed Promise" and spokesman Joe Pounder kept up a steady stream of negative headlines, comments, and links on Twitter.
Nobody was tougher on the president than former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. A crusader for campaign-finance reform while in the Senate, Feingold said in a statement that Obama was embracing "corrupt corporate politics" and "dancing with the devil." He added, "I understand the desire to do everything possible to win. But this decision will push Democrats to become corporate-lite, and will send us head-on into a battle we know we will lose, because Republicans like Mitt Romney and his friends have and will spend more money."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Tuesday that there is a "huge difference" between Obama's approach and the one taken by the GOP and its presidential contenders. He said Obama continues to oppose the Citizens United decision and push for more transparency in the system. “Disclosure remains an absolute priority of this president and his campaign,” Carney said.
Sophie Quinton contributed contributed to this article.