An e-mail sent to supporters on Thursday morning contained a video of Barack Obama making a big announcement: He has decided to opt out of the public funding system.
“This means we’ll be forgoing more than $80 million in public funds during the final months of this election,” Obama says in the video, continuing:
It’s not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections. But the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who’ve become masters at gaming this broken system. John McCain’s campaign and the Republican National Committee are fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special-interest PACs. And we’ve already seen that he’s not going to stop the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups, who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations.
From the very beginning of this campaign, I have asked my supporters to avoid that kind of unregulated activity and join us in building a new kind of politics — and you have …
You’ve already changed the way campaigns are funded because you know that’s the only way we can truly change how Washington works. And that’s the path we will continue in this general election. I’m asking you to try to do something that’s never been done before. Declare our independence from a broken system, and run the type of campaign that reflects the grass-roots values that have already changed our politics and brought us this far. If we don’t stand together, the broken system we have now, a system where special interests drown out the voices of the American people, will continue to erode our politics and prevent the possibility of real change.
It’s not a new line from Obama, who had tested it out before. But it is, let’s be honest, sort of a cynical bit of spin.
First, Obama portrays the decision as a risk financially. That’s incredible, in the most literal sense of the word. He’s not taking a risk; he’s doing himself a big, big favor. Because of this decision, he’ll have a large financial advantage over McCain. (Nothing wrong with having this advantage, of course, or pressing it. Good for him, actually. But let’s not pretend this discrepancy doesn’t exist, as Obama did in the video.)
Obama is turning down about $80 million. His campaign has previously raised more than that in just two months — and that’s when he was campaigning against other Democrats, whose supporters are presumably now contributing to Obama. In fact, one recent report said that some “leading Democratic fundraisers” believe Obama could raise as much as $100 million just this month, and perhaps hundreds of millions before the election. Joe Trippi, best known as Howard Dean’s campaign manager, has suggested that Obama could raise $500 million. The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder puts the number at $300 million, and notes that McCain’s campaign and the Republican National Committee, combined, don’t expect to spend more than half of that.
Moreover, this decision breaks a promise Obama made repeatedly to use public financing if his opponent in the general election would agree to do so as well. In 2007, he even went to the Federal Election Commission and proposed that candidates should be allowed to return money they’d raised for the general election in the early going and then opt into the system. As former Salon reporter Jake Tapper points out, in response to one candidate questionnaire from Common Cause, Obama wrote:
My plan requires both major party candidates to agree on a fundraising truce, return excess money from donors, and stay within the public financing system for the general election. My proposal followed announcements by some presidential candidates that they would forgo public financing so they could raise unlimited funds in the general election. The Federal Election Commission ruled the proposal legal, and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has already pledged to accept this fundraising pledge. If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.
Tapper also reports that the McCain camp says Obama’s campaign did not really make an aggressive effort toward such an agreement. The Obama camp disputes this accusation.