Obama’s fear of leading by example

Obama, who famously lectured the Supreme Court on its Citizens United ruling will now embrace the advocacy groups

Topics: Opening Shot,

Obama's fear of leading by example

It’s official: Barack Obama has decided — not for the first time — that leading by example is just too risky.

On January 27, 2010, in one of the most celebrated moments of his presidency, Obama stood in the rostrum of the U.S. House and called out to their faces the five members of the Supreme Court who had ruled six days earlier that the federal government has no authority to limit the independent political activity of corporations and unions.

“With all due deference to the separations of powers,” he said, “last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign companies — to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities, and that’s why I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong.”

Since then, Obama has sought to portray himself as the chief conscientious objector to Super PACs, the “independent” advocacy groups that grew out of the court’s Citizens United ruling. While Republicans jumped at the chance to pool huge sums of money from affluent donors, Obama claimed the good government high ground and largely held his own party back from playing the same game. Even though a White House-friendly Super PAC, Priorities USA, was launched a year ago by a former to Obama aide (Bill Burton), the president refused to exploit an FEC ruling that would have allowed him and other members of his campaign team and administration to take part in the group’s fund-raising events.

But all of that abruptly changed last night, with word that Obama has decided to give in and play the Super PAC game just as aggressively as his Republican opponents. As the New York Times reports:

Aides said the president had signed off on a plan to dispatch cabinet officials, senior advisers at the White House and top campaign staff members to make clear to donors that they should support Priorities USA Action, the leading Democratic “super PAC,” whose fund-raising has been dwarfed by Republican groups. The new policy was presented to the campaign’s National Finance Committee in a call Monday evening and was set to be announced Tuesday.



“Dwarfed” is definitely the right word. Fund-raising reports released last week showed that the pro-Mitt Romney Super PAC Restoring Our Future has outraised Priorities USA by more than seven-to-one. And that’s just one component of the Republican Super PAC arsenal. Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who has given $10 million to a Newt Gingrich-aligned group, is sending signals that he’ll move his support to Romney if the former Massachusetts governor is Obama’s fall opponent, while a Super PAC launched by Karl Rove has taken in more than $50 million.

In a post that went up on Obama’s official campaign site last night, campaign manager Jim Messina framed the decision as a pragmatic necessity, insisting that Obama still abhors the Citizens Unites ruling while arguing that “our campaign has to face the reality of the law as it currently stands”:

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.

Therefore, the campaign has decided to do what we can, consistent with the law, to support Priorities USA in its effort to counter the weight of the GOP Super PAC. We will do so only in the knowledge and with the expectation that all of its donations will be fully disclosed as required by law to the Federal Election Commission.

The move calls to mind Obama’s decision four years ago to rationalize his way out of an early commitment to participate in the public financing system for presidential elections. Then as now Obama had a compelling financial incentive; by thumbing his nose at matching funds, he was able to create a massive gap between his own campaign treasury and that of his Republican opponent. The difference is that this time he’s doing it in the name of leveling the playing field.

In 2008, Obama took plenty of heat from good government-types and even from some supporters, and the same will probably be true this time. In a way, his decision is easy to justify: Given how important money is to modern campaigning and how close the November election is supposed to be, how could Obama not do everything in his his legal power to neutralize any GOP advantage? At the same time, it also reinforces the worst image of Obama — the guy who specializes in high-minded, inspirational rhetoric only to junk it the minute it becomes politically inconvenient.

For that matter, it’s also possible that Obama and his campaign are overreacting to the GOP’s Super PAC strength. After all, his own campaign  has been raising huge sums of money. Through December 31, Obama had brought in $30 million more than Romney, Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul combined; the main effect of his decision may just be to erase that edge while correcting the Super PAC imbalance. And anyway, a good case can be made that fundraising disparities actually don’t matter that much in presidential general elections provided both candidates enjoy a threshold level of support. But Obama apparently isn’t in the mood to take that chance.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>