With his second term agenda – and his legacy – in jeopardy, President Obama tried to rally donors and volunteers to help him control the late summertime message when Congress is out of town for its August break.
Obama, as well as top Democratic leaders, exhorted those gathered for a Monday night event sponsored by a non-profit created from his campaign committee to ratchet up the pressure in the coming months to give him leverage in the tough fights ahead – on immigration, budget and spending priorities and the roll-out of his health care law.
“We’ve got to get folks activated and involved,” he told the group of party faithful gathered at Washington’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
Even though he was re-elected, supporters shouldn’t get complacent, Obama implored. He said he still desperately needs their help and noted, that even though he is president, his power his limited in the deeply divided capital.
“Naturally, it’s not going to be as full of razzmatazz as the first campaign,” he said. “First of all, we don’t have a billion dollars to spend. Nonetheless, in some ways this stuff is more important.”
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told members of the audience to make sure make their voice heard and call their congressmen, and encourage their friends to do so too.
“Nothing is more eloquent to a member of Congress than the voice of his or her own constituent,” she said.
The Senate’s top Democrat, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., also pressed the president’s supporters to continue the fight. He took a dig at his Republican counterpart, noting that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is expecting to face a primary challenge from the right next year.
“He tried to make love to the Tea Party – and they didn’t like it,” Reid said.
The pleas for help from the president’s base and the event itself had the look and feel of an extended campaign as Obama and the Democratic leaders spoke to the crowd of some 300.
Indeed, Obama is the first president to continue campaign-style fundraising even after being elected to a second-term.
Even before being sworn in for a second-term, Obama sent an email to supporters calling on them to get involved with Organizing for Action, the group that morphed from his campaign committee and transformed itself into a tax-exempt organization aimed at countering a similar group top GOP strategist Karl Rove has run during the last two election cycles.
The Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision opened the fundraising floodgate to these nonprofit political groups, which take in millions of dollars from donors with few restrictions. Obama condemned the high court’s decision after it came down but has gone on to take advantage of the ruling.
Government watchdog groups have criticized Obama’s involvement on behalf of OFA, arguing that because the group is so closely aligned with him, the president is selling access, and continuing to break his promises on cleaning up Washington’s campaign finance system.
Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, said the lines between the White House and OFA have been blurry from the get-go.
“President Obama has continually disappointed in the money-in-politics arena,” she said. “He has made clear through his actions and inaction that, despite his rhetoric when running originally, he does not put much stock into changing the access and influence buying that OFA embodies.”
OFA’s organizers insist that Monday night’s event at the Mandarin was not a fundraiser, noting that donors, as well as volunteers and campaign alumni attended. But Katie Hogan, the group’s spokeswoman, also declined to provide a breakdown of the number of donors versus campaign alumni and volunteers who were there for the president’s speech.
“Today’s Action August Summit is by invitation only. Attendees include volunteers, grassroots organizers, campaign alumni, OFA staff and donors who have given a variety of contributions to OFA,” she said.
“This is not a fundraising event,” she continued. “We will be discussing the important organizing work that is to be done on issues from comprehensive immigration reform to climate change to spreading the news about the benefits of Obamacare during the upcoming congressional recess.”
Hogan noted that donors who gave more than $250 are listed on their website, although that list does not say exactly how much each donor has given.