President Obama's decision to endorse a "super PAC" working on his behalf will test the devotion of his top contributors, who have yet to match the massive sums pouring into such groups allied with Republican presidential challengers.
In asking his top fundraisers to steer money to the main super PAC backing his reelection, Obama embraced a campaign vehicle he spent the last two years castigating — potentially undermining his efforts to cast himself as a reformer.
Liberals and political reform advocates on Tuesday denounced his decision to allow campaign officials and Cabinet members to headline fundraisers for Priorities USA Action.
It remains to be seen whether Democratic contributors will make the mammoth donations that have fueled the GOP-allied super PACs, such as the $8.6 million Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons and his company gave last year to groups such as American Crossroads.
Obama has assembled a robust network of fundraisers that has helped bring in $220 million so far for his reelection campaign and the Democratic Party, but Priorities USA Action raised just $4.4 million last year.
Deep-pocketed donors on the left have been relatively constrained in their super PAC giving. Billionaire philanthropist George Soros shelled out $175,000. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg gave $100,000, and director Rob Reiner just $5,000.
An analysis by the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau found that of the 17 people or organizations who gave at least $1 million each to super PACs last year, all but two donated to Republican groups.
Democratic fundraisers argue that the left has a smaller pool of donors capable of writing such checks and noted that many wealthy contributors were waiting for the general election. Others have held back because of Obama's long-standing condemnation of outside fundraising groups.
Still, some major players appear less motivated than their Republican counterparts to invest much of their personal fortunes in the 2012 race. Soros, who gave more than $23 million to outside Democratic groups in the 2004 campaign, told Reuters TV last month that he had been "slightly disappointed" in Obama.
"If it's between Obama and Romney, there isn't all that much difference, except … Romney would have to take [Newt] Gingrichor [Rick] Santorumas a vice president and probably have some pretty extreme candidates for the Supreme Court," he said. "So that's the downside."
Soros spokesman Michael Vachon said the philanthropist had not decided about his involvement in the presidential campaign.
Obama's decision to give Priorities USA Action his blessing — which campaign manager Jim Messina relayed Monday night to the campaign's national finance committee in a hastily arranged conference call — triggered a combination of relief and resignation.
"Finally!" said veteran Hollywood fundraiser Andy Spahn in a one-word email.
But Philadelphia philanthropist Peter Buttenweiser said that although he empathized with the campaign's need to combat the big money on the other side, he was uncomfortable with its decision.
"I just think the way that money has engulfed elections puts us a step back, makes good government that much more difficult," said Buttenweiser, a longtime Democratic donor.
Veteran Democratic fundraiser and strategist David Rosen said he understood Obama's decision but still had qualms.
"What it means is that one person can affect the nominating process," Rosen said. "I find it appalling."
The power of one wealthy individual has been demonstrated in the Republican contest, in which casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his family saved former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's candidacy by funneling $11 million into a super PAC.
Obama's decision further pushes the pendulum in favor of big donors and moneyed special interests, which have assumed newfound influence in the two years since the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which lifted the ban on direct corporate and union political spending. That case, along with a separate ruling by a federal appellate court, led to the creation of super PACs, which can raise unlimited sums as long as they do not coordinate with candidates or political parties.
Obama decried the Citizens United decision, saying in his 2010 State of the Union address that it would "open the floodgates for special interests." He has warned that outside groups — particularly those that do not disclose their donors — represent "a threat to our democracy."
The Obama campaign emphasized Tuesday that it was urging support only for the super PAC itself, which must disclose its donors, and not its sister nonprofit organization, which is not required to disclose.
White House spokesman Jay Carney emphasized that Obama remained opposed to Citizens United and committed to efforts to require more transparency in political spending.
Still, the president's reversal dismayed campaign finance reform advocates, who said the appearance of Obama officials at super PAC events eroded any claim of independence by the groups.
"The idea that the presidential candidate-specific super PACs are 'independent' from the presidential candidates and campaigns they are supporting is a complete fantasy," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, who suggested such appearances amounted to illegal coordination.
A senior Obama campaign official rejected that, saying the campaign could participate in fundraising events but couldn't coordinate advertising and communications strategy.
The Federal Election Commission issued an advisory opinion in July saying that federal candidates and their representatives could send fundraising appeals on behalf of super PACs and attend their events, as long as they did not solicit contributions exceeding $5,000.
At the time, Obama campaign officials said they would not take advantage of the ruling, but they changed their minds after watching the deluge of cash remake the Republican primary contest.
"With so much at stake, we can't allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm," Messina wrote in a blog post Monday night.