As President Obama prepares to kick off his reelection campaign, two former key White House aides are likely to launch an independent political group in support of his bid, a direct response to the pent-up demand among Democrats for a vehicle to challenge the Republican network of well-funded allies.
The independent expenditure effort is being contemplated by Bill Burton, the former deputy press secretary, and Sean Sweeney, who served as the senior aide to former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Both left the White House this year. The organization is still in the planning stages, according to people familiar with the discussions, but is already being viewed by top Democratic fundraisers as the most promising effort to counter the independent political organizations that helped secure GOP victories in the 2010 midterm election.
The formation of such a group would mark a dramatic reversal from 2008, when Obama criticized the role of outside interests in the election. His campaign effectively shut down most independent political campaigns by urging top donors not to finance such programs.
"It is our hope that anyone who supports Obama does so directly through his campaign and not through these outside groups," Burton, then the campaign spokesman, told the New York Times in January 2008.
But after watching Republicans benefit from a flood of outside money in 2010, White House officials appear to have accepted the need for such an effort on Obama's behalf. Burton declined to comment.
The shift reflects a belief by the president's advisors that his campaign will face an unprecedented blizzard of moneyed opposition in 2012, in part because the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case last year opened the door to direct political spending by corporations and unions.
Officials with the campaign — which will officially form when Obama files papers with the Federal Election Commission, which could happen as soon as Monday — declined to discuss the independent effort. Legally, it would not be allowed to coordinate with the reelection effort.
Democratic officials emphasized that Obama — who criticized GOP-allied groups last year for declining to name their contributors — remained committed to pushing for more transparency in political spending.
"Despite the vehement opposition of Republicans to disclosure requirements and the political advantages the current system allows for, the president will continue to support such measures because it's the right thing to do," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan.
The presence of a pro-Obama outside group would mean that Obama donors would be pressed on two fronts in the coming months, as both the campaign and the independent group would seek to fill their coffers. Outside groups can accept unlimited amounts of corporate and individual donations.
Obama is expected to formally kick off his bid April 14 with a video announcement, followed by a series of fundraisers in Chicago, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and New York.
The campaign, which is expected to raise as much as $1 billion overall, is starting its own fundraising at an aggressive clip, pairing large low-dollar events in each city with exclusive gatherings that will cost as much as $35,800 a person — with $5,000 going to the reelection campaign and the rest to the Democratic National Committee. The required donation is double the usual cost for such high-ticket gatherings and amounts to the maximum individuals are allowed to give under federal law.
The Los Angeles dinner alone is expected to raise $3.5 million from 100 people.
Even before formal invitations have gone out, Democratic organizers said, the events in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley were already close to capacity. Each was designed as an intimate setting in which major donors would get an unusual amount of face time with the president.
The campaign's full-throttle drive for money and the separate effort to create an independent expenditure group reflects the expectations on both sides of the aisle that 2012 will see record political spending.
The billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch have reportedly pledged to raise at least $88 million for conservative causes, while American Crossroads and its nonprofit arm, cofounded by GOP strategist Karl Rove, have set a goal of at least $120 million to help Republicans.
"Given what Karl Rove has created and what the Koch brothers have done, there's now an understanding on the Democratic side that the Democrats are not going to stand in the way of these independent expenditures," said Margery Tabankin, a longtime Democratic political activist in Hollywood.
Still, some Democratic fundraisers privately expressed dismay that Obama would sanction outside spending on his behalf, fretting that a group raising unlimited amounts of money for his reelection would tarnish his image.
But other donors expressed relief that an outside group was being organized by former Obama aides, who will have a sense of how best to help the campaign.
"My guess is the president would rather have none of this," said one prominent Democratic fundraiser, who asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly. "But with the passage of Citizens United, we have seen so many of these independent expenditures on the other side of the aisle that I think it would be irresponsible not to compete on a level playing field."
Melanie Mason in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.