Senior political officials on Wednesday are scheduled to host a mega-donor with plans of making a nine-figure investment in the 2014 midterm elections.
Instead, the White House, which has repeatedly bemoaned the influence of big money in politics, will open its doors to Tom Steyer, the environmental activist who has pledged to spend up to $100 million on November's elections to promote his climate-change agenda. Steyer is also a high-profile opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, a project the Obama administration is still reviewing.
Although progressives were unwillingly to publicly condemn the White House for the Steyer gathering, multiple Democratic sources on Capitol Hill privately said that President Obama looked like he was playing the same political game he so actively criticized.
"If a Republican president did the same thing with the Koch brothers, we would skewer them," a House Democratic lawmaker told the Washington Examiner. "If you're going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk."
"That's probably the last person I'd like White House officials to meet with," added a senior aide for a centrist Senate Democrat in a tough re-election fight.
Republicans are hammering the Obama White House and Democrats for their approach to cutting carbon emissions, saying Environmental Protection Agency rules to limit greenhouse gases from power plants would hurt the economy.
In Steyer, conservatives see a figure they can frame in much the same way liberals dismiss the Kochs, as the figure calling the policy shots for politicians eager to raise campaign cash.
Steyer has dismissed the comparison with the Koch brothers, saying he is more motivated by environmental stewardship than lining his own pockets.
However, the White House embrace of the billionaire former hedge fund manager is problematic for Obama in that he once actively dismissed the growing influence of big donors in Washington.
"With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics," Obama said in 2010 after the court's landmark Citizens United ruling, which struck down key campaign finance restrictions. "It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans."
Obama's evolution on the issue came full circle earlier this year, when he agreed to headline fundraisers for super PACs, groups he once decried as corrosive to the political process -- and pledged to avoid them.
The White House on Tuesday defended its decision to host a meeting with Steyer.
"I have no misgivings about the individuals who are participating in that meeting, their political activities notwithstanding," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. "The administration is committed to making progress in addressing the causes of climate change and reducing carbon pollution. That's something that Mr. Steyer has obviously well-known views on. But there are a lot of other people with well-known views on this that the White House is consulting."
Also attending the meeting are former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros and Cargill CEO Greg Page. The group compiled a report on the economic consequences of climate change.
But even some of the president's congressional allies said that reasoning didn't excuse the White House meeting.
"I don't like it," said the House Democrat. "It stinks."