Pro-Obama group wades into budget standoff

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s efforts to dramatize the potential effects of $85 billion in budget cuts set to begin Friday are getting a boost from a controversial tax-exempt advocacy group formed to support his policy agenda.

Organizing for Action began a campaign Wednesday to collect personal stories to show how the spending cuts would disrupt people’s lives. The group will promote the stories on Twitter and Facebook in an effort to cast Republicans as protectors of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class, the same message the White House has pushed.

“Our focus will really be on the ground and explaining what the budget fight means to local communities,” Jon Carson, the group’s executive director, said in an interview.

The move comes as the White House seeks to drive home the potential effects of the automatic cuts, known as the sequester. The parallel efforts underscore how the pro-Obama group is already entwined with administration strategy, even as White House officials emphasize the group’s independent status.

Strategists from the group, which is a tax-exempt 501(c)4 social welfare organization, talked with White House staff members in planning this week’s effort. The White House contact with the organization is similar to its interactions with other advocacy groups that support Obama’s agenda, a senior administration official said.


Organizing for Action is different than other advocacy groups, however. It runs Obama’s Twitter account and Facebook page and is reaching out to the same high-dollar bundlers and grass-roots contributors who helped Obama pull in a record $1.1 billion for his reelection.

The group, which may accept unlimited individual and corporate donations, aims to raise $50 million, according to a Democratic official. That could make it an influential force in politics.

Top fundraisers, volunteer organizers and former Obama campaign staff members are expected to attend a “founders summit” at a Washington hotel on March 13, where donors expect Obama may appear.

Carson and the group’s chairman, Jim Messina, held briefings this month in California for Obama’s top-tier fundraisers. One plan under discussion would give those who bundle at least $500,000 a year for the pro-Obama group the chance to attend quarterly meetings with the president.

Campaign finance reform groups, including Democracy 21 and Common Cause, say that arrangement creates a back-door conduit for improper influence and have called on Obama to shut down the organization.

White House spokesman Jay Carney disputed the notion that donors can buy access to the president, directing questions about the fundraising to Organizing for Action. Katie Hogan, a spokeswoman, said it had not promised anyone access to the president.

“The engine of this organization is and will continue to be our grass-roots engagement and support,” she said in a statement, noting that the group planned to voluntarily disclose its donors and would not accept money from registered lobbyists. Exact donations will not be revealed, but contributors will be listed under ranges of amounts given on a quarterly basis, with the first report expected in April.

The group has begun to ramp up its operation, hiring staffers for its Chicago headquarters and regional offices. It is planning a campaign this fall to sign people up for health insurance through new exchanges being created under Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

It’s not yet clear whether Organizing for Action can influence policy. A “Day of Action” last week energized volunteers who favor universal background checks for gun purchases, but had no discernible effect on negotiations in the Senate.

Still, conservative advocacy groups are watching carefully.

“It is helpful to have allies you control that basically have unlimited money to press and echo the president’s message,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, which is urging lawmakers to let the sequester go forward. “It’s absolutely formidable.”

Phillips said Organizing for Action gave opponents an opening to hit Obama for embracing a tax-exempt group financed by unlimited donations, the very kind of organization the president railed against in the past.

“We’re going to bring that up, because it points to hypocrisy,” he said.