Obama displays plenty of fundraising steam

With midterm elections looming, President Obama is raising campaign money at a ferocious pace, tapping into an energized corps of Democratic donors.

Obama trailed his predecessor, George W. Bush, in the amount of money raised 13 months into their tenures ($32 million to $53 million), but had more than twice the number of fundraising appearances (33 to 13) compared with Bush, who curtailed such travel after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Obama’s next fundraising trip is Monday, when he flies to Los Angeles to help the Democratic National Committee and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a White House ally facing perhaps her toughest reelection fight. Tickets for the more exclusive of two events top out at $35,200, with $4,800 going to Boxer’s campaign fund and the rest to the DNC.

Polls show Obama enjoys less popular support than he had when he took office 15 months ago. Yet his fundraising prowess shows that he remains a powerful political force who can stockpile chits from grateful Democratic candidates eager for his help.

Some dinners and receptions with Democratic donors are embedded in official presidential trips. On Thursday, Obama laid out his policy on space exploration at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and then he headed to a pair of fundraising excursions for the DNC, including a reception at singer Gloria Estefan’s home in Miami Beach.

Past presidents have also mixed official business with partisan fundraising. But in recent weeks Obama has stepped up his efforts, seeking to capitalize on the passage of the Democratic legislation overhauling healthcare to energize his core supporters.

On a recent trip to Maine, he gave a speech on the new law. Later he flew by helicopter to the Boston suburbs for a 15-minute briefing on New England flooding. Then it was on to Boston for a pair of fundraising events that netted $2.5 million for the DNC.

“After 100 years, we passed health insurance reform and enshrined the idea that everybody should have some security when it comes to their healthcare,” he told an audience crammed into a ballroom overlooking Boston Harbor.

When Bush combined official business with fundraising, some Democrats objected. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) once complained that Bush had made “five trips at which [he] promoted welfare reform at official events and then made separate fundraising appearances for GOP candidates before the 2002 midterm elections.” Obama’s practices have drawn no such complaints from fellow Democrats.

“He’s a much hotter ticket now than he was six months ago,” said Peter Buttenwieser, a Democratic fundraiser from Philadelphia. “There was some slight discomfort that things were not getting done quickly and Congress seemed to be stalled. It did do some damage, and that’s why I think when [healthcare] happened, people felt, ‘That’s why we elected him.’ ”

It is too early to tell whether the healthcare success will provide lasting momentum for Democratic fundraising. But party officials were heartened by one early measure. The fundraising totals from March show that the DNC out-raised its Republican counterpart by about $1.6 million. Given that healthcare passed with 10 days left in the month, Democrats see this as a hopeful sign.

“When donors are engaged and happy and seeing agenda items moving forward, they’re more likely to be generous,” said Mark Gilbert, a DNC deputy national finance chairman.

Given Obama’s ambitious fundraising schedule, campaign watchdogs openly worry about the president’s ability to maintain balance. “Time spent fundraising is time not spent on the people’s business,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on campaign finance issues.

Obama, she said, “has to find a reasonable balance or risk this becoming an Achilles’ heel for opponents to capitalize on.”

White House and party officials say Obama has insisted on fundraising restrictions that are consistent with his pledge to change the political culture in Washington.

He bars the DNC from accepting money from political action committees and federal lobbyists, though records show the party will accept money from employees of law firms that are registered lobbyists.

An unusual part of Obama’s campaign for president was his reliance on small donations. But as president, Obama is also embracing big-dollar donors.

In a visit to Las Vegas in February, Obama presided at a town-hall-style meeting, but he also attended a private DNC fundraising event at the home of George Maloof, whose family owns the Palms Casino Resort and the Sacramento Kings basketball team.

The 40 or so guests paid $30,400 each, the maximum an individual can give to a national party committee each year.

“He went table to table,” Maloof said in an interview. “It was pretty special.”

Though Obama did not make formal remarks at the sit-down dinner, “he stayed an hour and a half or two hours, shook every person’s hand and gave each one the opportunity to ask any questions they might have,” Maloof said. But others said Obama rarely allows time for small talk, in contrast to the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

Clinton “would come in and essentially spend the night when he came to do a fundraiser,” said Alan Kessler, a longtime Democratic fundraiser. “This president does things a different way. He’s a quick-hitter. He comes in and says what he wants to say and he’s gone. And I will say, over time, it is hard to gauge how people will react to that.”