Obama’s Real Job: Fundraiser in Chief

The Supreme Court’s latest campaign finance decision is going to put even more pressure on the president to spend time chasing cash.

US President Barack Obama speaks during a Democratic fundraiser in Chicago, Illinois, May 29, 2013.
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James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
April 14, 2014, 1 a.m.

Cam­paigns are about num­bers, so here are a few: After two sep­ar­ate re­cent events in Hou­s­ton, Pres­id­ent Obama will have at­ten­ded 373 fun­draisers dur­ing his five-plus years in of­fice. That’s just about one every five days or so. As­sum­ing he speaks for close to 15 minutes at each event, that’s well over 5,000 pres­id­en­tial minutes con­sumed by the dirty busi­ness of ask­ing people for money. And that doesn’t in­clude the prep, the glad-hand­ing and hob­nob­bing, the pho­tos, the private asides, the travel.

The stats (as com­piled by CBS News re­port­er Mark Knoller) il­lus­trate in stark de­tail something every­one already knows: The pres­id­ent of the United States isn’t just the chief ex­ec­ut­ive. He’s a one-man in­dustry, a mar­ket­ing ma­chine, a brand — and his time is di­vided among the people’s busi­ness, the party’s, and his own.

At this point in his pres­id­ency, George W. Bush, a true grip-and-grin guy if there’s ever been one, had at­ten­ded just 200 such events. More sur­pris­ingly, as an in­vest­ig­a­tion by The Guard­i­an found last year, Obama isn’t throt­tling back the cash en­gine, even though he is in his fi­nal term. He is, in fact, way ahead of the second-term fun­drais­ing ef­forts of not only Bush but also of Bill Clin­ton, an­oth­er man who could work a room.

Thanks to the Su­preme Court, this phe­nomen­on is likely to grow worse as the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race ap­proaches. The ma­jor­ity’s de­cision earli­er this month in Mc­Cutcheon v. FEC, which did away with caps on the ag­greg­ate amount of money a donor can send to can­did­ates and parties dur­ing an elec­tion cycle, will put even more pres­sure on pres­id­ents (and pres­id­en­tial hope­fuls) to spend as much time as pos­sible rais­ing money.

The rul­ing max­im­izes the in­flu­ence of big donors, who can now write checks fund­ing a bevy of can­did­ates and party com­mit­tees at once. And there is no bet­ter con­duit to the wealthy than POTUS — or, al­tern­at­ively, the can­did­ate crown­ing the tick­et. “The large donors care more about who so­li­cits them than where the money is go­ing,” says Lawrence Noble, a former law­yer for the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion who is now with the Cam­paign Leg­al Cen­ter, a re­form ad­vocacy group. “As far as they’re con­cerned, they’re giv­ing it be­cause the pres­id­ent or the can­did­ate is ask­ing them.”

Un­der the mod­ern pres­id­en­tial fun­drais­ing mod­el, the money is gathered via a joint com­mit­tee (Obama’s was the Vic­tory Fund). The max­im­um that can be giv­en to one can­did­ate — a lim­it that will still be in place after Mc­Cutcheon — is then sent to the pres­id­ent’s cam­paign and the rest to the party, which may in­clude some funds ear­marked for con­gres­sion­al cam­paign com­mit­tees or state parties. Since Obama’s reelec­tion, the go­ing rate for a Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee fun­draiser like the ones in Texas this week has been $32,400 a tick­et, the most that can be donated to a party per year. Un­der the pre-Mc­Cutcheon rules, a fun­drais­ing event could have charged some­what more per donor and then donated everything above the lim­it to oth­er com­mit­tees or can­did­ates. But it couldn’t have charged or­ders of mag­nitude more, be­cause the most a single donor could hand out dur­ing a cycle was $123,200.

In the wake of Mc­Cutcheon, that lim­it has gone by the boards. Now, some es­tim­ates have the up­per lim­it at $3.5 mil­lion per donor per party. As a res­ult, politi­cians and parties are ex­pec­ted to cre­ate much more massive joint fund- rais­ing com­mit­tees that could col­lect large checks and then dole them out to scores of con­gres­sion­al as­pir­ants. And where be­fore some party com­mit­tees were ex­cluded from the mix be­cause of the ag­greg­ate lim­its, now they can all share in the in­come stream without wor­ry­ing about their best donors max­ing out.

All of it means that the elite, pres­id­en­tial-level fun­draiser be­comes more crit­ic­al than ever. “It’s go­ing to be the same thing — just add a few zer­oes,” says Lisa Rosen­berg, an ana­lyst with the Sun­light Found­a­tion. “We’re put­ting our pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates in the po­s­i­tion of put­ting out their hands for $1 mil­lion dona­tions. At best, it’s un­seemly. At worst, it’s cor­rupt­ing.”

The five-fig­ure fee to at­tend a din­ner with the pres­id­ent could soon be a quaint rel­ic of a by­gone era. The price for entry will be more about “what the mar­ket will bear,” says Dick Har­poot­li­an, an Obama bund­ler and a former chair­man of the South Car­o­lina Demo­crat­ic Party.

Har­poot­li­an says he doesn’t see the de­cision hav­ing a dra­mat­ic ef­fect on the polit­ic­al land­scape. “It may make a dif­fer­ence for a hand­ful of people who want to give hun­dreds of thou­sands,” he says. But to good-gov­ern­ment ad­voc­ates like Rosen­berg, that’s ex­actly the prob­lem. A Sun­light Found­a­tion ana­lys­is found that about 600 donors reached the ag­greg­ate lim­it in 2012. Mc­Cutcheon will al­low that group to write lar­ger and lar­ger checks, and give it even more dis­pro­por­tion­ate in­flu­ence, she ar­gues.

Of course, party loy­al­ists view the situ­ation dif­fer­ently. In­stead of money from mo­tiv­ated donors go­ing to out­side groups, as had been the trend be­fore Mc­Cutcheon, it’s bet­ter for it to go to the can­did­ate and the parties, says Ron­ald Kauf­man, a former ad­viser to Mitt Rom­ney. “When you give to third-party groups, you real­ize that in­vest­ment is not as well used,” he says.

The ex­pec­ted in­flux of money is yet an­oth­er mixed bless­ing for Obama and his party, which likes to wring its hands over the high court and bash the likes of the free-spend­ing Koch broth­ers — while show­ing no in­clin­a­tion to uni­lat­er­ally dis­arm and stick to the old fin­an­cial re­straints. “At the end of the day,” says a Demo­crat­ic Party of­fi­cial, “people are go­ing to play by the same set of rules.”

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