Even before Barack Obama was sworn in as president the first time, he touted his efforts to “change business as usual in Washington” by setting strict rules for his inauguration: No corporate donations were allowed; individuals could give only $50,000.
This time, Obama’s inaugural committee is seeking million-dollar contributions from corporations and offering perks in return, such as tickets to the official ball. The six companies that have given so far include AT&T;, Microsoft and Financial Innovations, a marketing company that received $15.7 million to produce merchandise for Obama’s reelection campaign and is the official vendor for the inauguration. The committee has put no limit on how much individuals can give.
The relaxed rules reflect how Obama has largely dropped his efforts to curb the role of money in politics, a cause he once vowed to make central to his presidency.
Advisors say the White House does not plan to take up campaign finance reform any time soon, even following an election that saw more than $1 billion spent by outside groups, much of it financed with seven-figure donations from billionaires.
The gusher of money was triggered in part by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allowed corporations to spend freely on political activity, a decision the president denounced in his State of the Union address that year.
But campaign finance reform advocates say Obama has at times even embraced the system he decries.
After railing against the political influence of outside groups funded by unlimited contributions, Obama gave his blessing to just such a group working on his behalf during his reelection. Priorities USA Action, a “super PAC” set up by two former White House aides, spent nearly $75 million. Organizers of last year’s Democratic National Convention vowed to produce it without corporate money, but ultimately used $5 million from a committee financed by companies such as Bank of America and Duke Energy to rent an arena in Charlotte, N.C.
“It’s all headed in the wrong direction,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the finance reform advocacy group Democracy 21. “In failing to treat campaign finance issues as serious issues, President Obama has done what every other president has done during the past 40 years -- and that is to do very little.”
Obama advisors reject the charge, noting that he voluntarily released a list of his top fundraisers during last year’s campaign, a step Republican challenger Mitt Romney declined to take.
“President Obama repeatedly and, in the case of the State of the Union, memorably advocated campaign finance reform to prevent large quantities of undisclosed money from drowning out the voices of average Americans,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “We’re hopeful that in his second term, congressional Republicans will drop their opposition and work with the president on an issue that has traditionally earned bipartisan support.”
Reform advocates say Obama needs to do more. The administration has yet to replace five members of the Federal Election Commission who are serving expired terms. The six-member panel is deeply polarized and deadlocks on most major regulatory issues.
A draft executive order requiring companies with federal contracts to disclose political spending was shelved after push back from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And Obama has put little capital into building support for stalled legislation that would require more disclosure by politically active groups.
The third anniversary of the decision falls on Jan. 20, the same day Obama is officially sworn in for a second term. “The Big Money influence in politics is far, far worse than it was, making the absence of leadership all the more noteworthy and troubling,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.
Administration officials argue that more pressing challenges topped Obama’s to-do list when he took office: The economy was in free fall, the auto industry was failing and the moment seemed ripe for healthcare reform. After Citizens United, the president decided that a major legislative overhaul of the campaign finance system could not get through Congress, and the White House dropped the idea of trying to tinker around the edges.
“I cut the president some slack because there have been so many other issues on his plate,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), House sponsor of the Disclose Act, a measure that, among other things, would require groups to list their top donors in political ads. “But I will push to make sure this is part of the agenda in the next year. It does require presidential attention.”
Obama is frequently pressed by supporters to take on the issue. On the campaign trail last year, donors at closed-door fundraisers asked what could be done to keep the other side from “buying” elections, as they often put it. The president, a constitutional lawyer by training, frequently replied that the only solution was a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
Obama floated that idea on the social news site Reddit in August.
“Even if the amendment process falls short,” Obama wrote, “it can shine a spotlight ... and help apply pressure for change.”
White House advisors say the remark just reflected Obama’s grim analysis of what would be needed to change the system. Now that he has been reelected, his team is focused on the federal budget deficit, gun violence and immigration -- not campaign finance reform.
Such thinking infuriates advocates of stricter fundraising rules. Obama’s legislative agenda will not succeed without changing “a campaign finance system that puts enormous power behind special interests,” said Larry Noble, former general counsel to the FEC and president of Americans for Campaign Reform.
Some of those deep-pocketed interests will have a role in the inauguration: A half-dozen corporations have donated money to the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which puts on the official parade and balls. This year, the committee aims to raise about $50 million, according to fundraisers involved -- similar to the $53.2 million raised for the 2009 inauguration, which drew an estimated 1.8 million people to the National Mall.
To raise the cash, party officials were reluctant to lean too heavily on the same weary major supporters who helped bring in a record $1.1 billion for Obama’s reelection.
As the discussions unfolded last fall, the president’s advisors agreed that taking money from a handful of corporations was palatable, especially since the donations were not linked to his reelection.
Unlike four years ago, however, the inaugural committee is not releasing details about how much donors have given, but it will have to report that to the FEC in April.
The committee’s looser rules dismay campaign finance reform advocates, who had hoped Obama would renew his quest to limit the role of Big Money in Washington.
“The current system is unacceptable,” Noble said. “President Obama said that at one time, and I’d like to believe the president still believes that. If so, you do something about it. You at least put up a fight.”