As re-election donations stall, Obama embraces wealthy Americans’ super PACs

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama’s deputies announced late Monday night that they would help so-called “super PACs” raise unlimited amounts of political cash from wealthy Americans to support his November campaign, following several months of disappointing fundraising efforts.

Obama has loudly — and often — opposed super PACs. His campaign manager justified the about-face as a defensive measure.

“We decided to do this because we can’t afford for the work you’re doing in your communities, and the grassroots donations you give to support it, to be destroyed by hundreds of millions of dollars in [GOP] negative ads,” said a late-night email from campaign manager Jim Messina.

“The stakes are too important to play by two different sets of rules,” he said in a 11:17 p.m. mass mailing sent out after the publication deadlines for many morning newspapers had passed.

The announcement provides tacit permission from Obama for many wealthy Democratic supporters in the high-tech, media and culture sectors to write huge checks to Democratic super PACs. Those funds will likely be used to launch negative TV ads against the GOP’s eventual presidential nominee.

(RELATED: Complete Obama re-election campaign coverage)

The admission marks a sudden end to several years of rhetorical opposition to super PAC funding by Obama and other Democrats, most notably New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.

Republican and Democratic super PACs were first created after the January 2010 “Citizens United”  Supreme Court decision struck down some campaign-finance regulations.

The late-night shift in fundraising tactics echoes Obama’s then-shocking decision in 2008 to forgo use of public financing for his first presidential campaign. That decision marked a sudden end to his repeated support for public financing, and allowed him to raised $750 million.

However, his turnabout was criticized only modestly by his allies in the media and in advocacy groups who had previously been calling for strict regulation of political funds. Republican candidate Sen. John McCain did rely on public financing, and raised roughly $200 million.

This year’s turnaround will likely be criticized, for a while, by some of his supporters.

Obama’s fundraising for the 2012 race has faltered despite his attendance at roughly 80 fundraisers by January 2012. By mid-January, he had raised roughly $200 million for his campaign and for the Democratic National Committee. He raised only $68 million during the last three months of 2011.

In contrast, fundraising by GOP candidates and super PACs has surged, partly because of increased donations by company executives who are alarmed at Obama’s regulatory policies. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for example, is receiving donations from employees at companies Obama wooed in 2008.

GOP-affiliated super PACs, including American Crossroads, have already raised tens of millions of dollars.

Obama’s team tried to portray his sudden shift in a good light. “If we fail to act, we concede this election to a small group of powerful people intent on removing the President at any cost,” said Messina’s message.

Still, donations to Obama from the wealthiest 1 percent won’t sideline the role of campaign volunteers, Messina claimed. “We continue to believe that this election will be won on the ground,” he wrote.

“Super PACs haven’t opened offices. They haven’t hired organizers. They haven’t registered voters. They haven’t knocked on doors or made the kind of personal contact with voters that we know is the single most effective way to persuade people and turn them out on Election Day… this is where we have the advantage,” he declared.

The change, however, was sudden. On Jan. 20, for example, White House press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters at a midday press conference that “the President’s position on Citizens United is very clear.”

Asked by The Daily Caller to explain Obama’s position, Carney replied, “we opposed the decision. We believe it’s not healthy for the system. I think you know that. But thanks for asking.”

Carney will likely be asked similar questions during Tuesday’s press conference.

In practice, Obama’s announcement means that campaign officials — but not Obama, the first lady or Vice President Joe Biden personally — will help raise money for a Democratic super PAC called Priorities USA.

“The campaign has decided to do what we can, consistent with the law, to support Priorities USA. … We will do so only in the knowledge and with the expectation that all of its donations will be fully disclosed as required by law to the Federal Election Commission,” Messina wrote.

That explanation is misleading: Many of the donors to Priorities USA won’t be identified, because much of its money already comes from another fundraising group that is allowed to collect donations, and then pass them to a super PAC, without revealing the donors’ names.

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Neil Munro