Obama backs off charge that foreign money is funding Chamber ads

President Obama on Sunday stepped back from categorical charges he made earlier this week that foreign money was funding conservative TV campaign ads, telling a rally in Philadelphia only that such a scenario was possible.

The softening of Obama’s language reflects the impact of a Saturday report on the issue by the New York Times, which concluded that charges originally made by a blog run by a Democratic-aligned think tank were baseless.

On Thursday, at a rally at Bowie State University in Maryland, Obama said this: “Just this week, we learned that one of the largest groups paying for these ads regularly takes in money from foreign corporations.”

But on Sunday, speaking to several thousand supporters in Philadelphia, he said that donors to groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “could even be foreign-owned corporations.”

“You don’t know because they don’t have to disclose,” Obama said.

A White House official told Politico’s Mike Allen: “There is no recalibration at all.”

But Obama’s backtracking on the issue follows several days of intense debate on the subject, following the posting Tuesday of the charges at ThinkProgress.org, the blog that is operated under the umbrella of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank run by John Podesta, who oversaw Obama’s transition team in the winter of 2008.

White House officials, who took up the charges and ran with them for a few days, admitted Saturday to the New York Times that they had no evidence of foreign money being used by the Chamber for any of its estimated $75 million in ads this cycle.

“No one knows,” said top Obama adviser David Axelrod, appearing Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“If the chamber opens up its books and says here’s where our political money is coming from, here are the million dollar, two or three million dollar contributions we’ve gotten from this company or that industry, then we’ll know,” Axelrod said. “But until they do that, all we have is their assertion.”

Bob Schieffer, the host of the show, expressed incredulity.

“If the only charge three weeks into the election that the Democrats can make is that somehow this may or may not be foreign money coming into the campaign, is that the best you can do?” Schieffer asked.

ThinkProgress maintains that the charge is still valid. They say that there are several sources of foreign money that come into the Chamber.

Not every Democrat was on the same page as the president. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, sent out a fundraising e-mail Sunday that deemed the use of foreign funds in Republican TV ads to be a certainty.

“The Republicans are now able to use secretive outside groups to pool the unlimited resources of big banks, big oil companies, and big health insurance companies into their campaign of attacks ads against Democrats,” Van Hollen said in the e-mail. “Its recently come to light that some of these organizations received significant funds from foreign-controlled interests.”

During Obama’s speech in Philadelphia, he used many of the same talking points and anecdotes that have become fixtures in his remarks at fundraisers and rallies over the last three months. But he was more partisan and combative in tone than normal, and beseeched the crowd of loyal supporters not to stay home on Nov. 2.

“They’re saying the other party’s supporters are more enthusiastic, more excited. They say all y’all are going to stay home. You might not come out like you did in 2008. They say you might not care as much. They think, oh, well, Obama’s name is not on the ballot, maybe they’re not going to turn out,” Obama said.

“I think the pundits are wrong. I think we’re going to win, but you got to prove them wrong,” he said.

Obama was relentless in pounding the Republicans, saying they have “spent the last 20 months saying no.”

He characterized the House Republicans “Pledge to America” as structured around extending the Bush tax cuts for families making $250,000 or more. But he characterized the GOP position, which favors extending cuts for all tax brackets, to make it sound as if they wanted only to extend cuts for top earners.

“The centerpiece of the pledge is a $700 billion tax cut that would only go to the top two percent, the wealthiest two percent of Americans,” Obama said.

“Ninety-eight percent of you would not get this tax cut.”

A White House spokesman said the president’s facts were accurate.

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