By JACK GILLUM and KEN THOMAS, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — In a reversal, President Barack Obama is embracing the big-money fundraising groups he assailed as a "threat to democracy" on the grounds they let money corrode elections. His shift is a pragmatic move to win re-election, and a concession that his team had no choice but to catch up and go along with today's supercharged rules.
Swamped by outside Republican groups in fundraising so far, Obama belatedly decided to give his blessing to so-called super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals. Both Obama's campaign and the White House maintain that the president does not support today's rules but realized belatedly he must play by them to give himself a competitive chance at a second term.
"He's not saying that the system is healthy or good," said Obama spokesman Jay Carney, who was pressed repeatedly about whether Obama's move was hypocrisy. "He is making the decision, his campaign is making the decision, that the rules are what they are. And they cannot play by a different set of rules than Republicans are playing."
That's not consistent with what Obama has said about the groups, though. And now, by putting strategy above all else, Obama opened himself to criticism that he had compromised on principle and succumbed to the rules of the same Washington game he pledged to change.
Obama has opposed the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United case. It stripped away certain limits on campaign contributions and led to the explosion of outside fundraising groups, which can receive donations from non-profit groups that conceal donors. The new super PACs can't coordinate directly with campaigns but have already played a major role in the Republican primary contests, supporting millions of dollars' worth of negative advertising in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida.
During his 2010 State of the Union speech, Obama accused the Supreme Court of reversing "a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections."
Months later, campaigning for Democrats before the 2010 midterm elections, Obama railed against corporate interests spending money directly to sway federal elections, calling it a "threat to our democracy." He urged supporters in his hometown of Chicago that fall to "fight their millions of dollars with millions of voices."
Obama has now flip-flopped on campaign finance for a second time in as many campaigns after vowing to rein in the role of big money in politics. Four years ago, he broke a pledge to accept taxpayer money from the public financing system and agree to accompany spending limits if his Republican opponent did. The move helped Obama financially overwhelm Republican John McCain and capture the White House.
This time, Obama's campaign is urging its top donors to support Priorities USA Action, a super PAC led by two former Obama aides that has struggled to compete with the tens of millions of dollars collected by Republican-backed outside groups. Campaign officials confirmed Tuesday that the president had personally signed off on the decision.
Former Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a champion for campaign finance reform, said Obama was "wrong to embrace the corrupt corporate politics of Citizens United through the use of super PACs — organizations that raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations and the richest individuals, sometimes in total secrecy. It's not just bad policy; it's also dumb strategy."
Republicans jumped on Obama's embrace of the super PACs and made clear they would use it against him. "Just another broken promise," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said of Obama's decision.
Obama's team defended the decision, saying they were simply playing by the new campaign finance rules and could not allow themselves to be deluged by Republican attack ads financed by outside groups.
Campaign manager Jim Messina said the president's campaign "can't allow for two sets of rules" in which the Republican presidential nominee benefits from "unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm," a telling reference to what amounts to a political war of advertising.
Messina made clear there were limits to Obama's blessing. Senior campaign officials, along with some White House officials and Cabinet members, would attend and speak at fundraising events for Priorities USA Action but would not directly ask for money. The officials would only speak at fundraising events that disclose donors.