Does Money Buy Access to the Obama White House?

Is Obama using the White House as a fundraising tool for the Democratic Party?

By + More

By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

For a president who promised his inauguration was the beginnings of a period of post-partisanship, the level of Barack Obama's permanent campaign activities is somewhat surprising.

Obama was the victim of the perennial cheap-shot earlier in the week when bloggers pointed out he was playing more golf than his predecessor, George W. Bush—who gave up the game because he believed it was inappropriate for him to be seen on the links while U.S. troops were in the field. And, with healthcare reform moving forward and a string of otherwise favorable coverage in the bank, the White House political team was probably feeling pretty good.

So it must have been quite a shock Wednesday when the Washington Times gave its readers the insider's view of how the White House wines and dines its most prominent and lucrative supporters.

In a detailed expose, the paper documented how, during his first nine months in office President Obama has "quietly rewarded scores of top Democratic donors with VIP access to the White House, private briefings with administration advisers and invitations to important speeches and town hall meetings."

Disturbingly, the access seems to come with a fixed price tag, requiring personal donations in excess of $30,000 or promises to collect and package $300,000 in contributions to Democratic committees and candidates prior to the 2010 mid-term elections. These figures, which the Times report says come from internal Democratic National Committee documents, put a whole new spin on the idea that access to the White House, no matter how strict the ethics rules appear to be, remains for sale.

Certainly the president, any president, as the nominal leader of his political party, has the right as well as the obligation to help his party raise political contributions. Campaign contributions are, after all, the mother's milk of the modern electoral process and have been since the world was young.

But there are plenty of people who argue there should be limits, limits which the previous Democratic administration pushed to the limit when it turned the White House into an upscale Hampton Inn, where Hollywood producers and buxom blonde actresses could jump up and down on Lincoln's bed.

The story in the Times suggests the current administration is trying to go the Clinton's a few leagues better, giving donors birthday access to the Oval Office, use of the White House bowling alley and invitations into the presidential theater to watch a movie with the president and his wife as well as access to senior administration officials.

Presidential aides, unsurprisingly, deny the existence of a plan that uses the White House and specialized access to it as a fundraising tool. "Contributing does not guarantee a ticket to the White House, nor does it prohibit the contributor from visiting," deputy White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said, an assertion that critics of the fundraising activities revealed in the story find laughable.

"Who believes anything that comes out of the White House or the president anymore," said Republican National Lawyers Association Chairman David Norcross said. "They are in permanent campaign mode and that for them has always meant saying whatever it takes to capitalize on the moment."

Norcross, an expert on campaign finance law and a former general counsel to the Republican National Committee, says the Times' revelations reveal hypocrisy of the highest order. "No lobbyists, no special interest influence, no campaign contributor shenanigans, was the pitch during the campaign. Now it is worse than business as usual; unelected, unconfirmed czars over heaven knows what, compensation control, bailouts for newspapers, attacks on media which has the temerity to disagree," he says, adding, "I am surprised at nothing."

  • Check out our political cartoons.
  • Become a political insider: Subscribe to U.S. News Weekly, our digital magazine.
  • Follow the Thomas Jefferson Street blog on Twitter.