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In Reversal, Obama Embraces Super PAC

In Reversal, Obama Embraces Super PAC

By Alexis Simendinger - February 7, 2012


President Obama wants to bring more knives to a knife fight, judging from the announcement Tuesday that White House and administration officials will join senior campaign aides to support super PACs working for Obama's re-election.

In a policy turnabout, the president is now encouraging his surrogates from the White House and the campaign to actively back the independent political action committees. This comes despite Obama's oft-stated condemnation of the "corrosive effects" on American politics of unlimited money from businesses, unions and other special interests. The president since 2010 has criticized the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

During his State of the Union address in 2010, Obama gazed down at John Roberts and other justices seated in front of him and said, “With all due deference to separation of powers, last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people.”

Obama is betting that the election appears bloody enough by now to convince supporters uncomfortable with big-money campaigns to overcome misgivings that he has abandoned principles in pursuit of politics. The president decided “he is not going to fight with one hand tied behind his back,” one of three senior campaign advisers told reporters Tuesday under ground rules that they would not be named.

In that same 2010 speech, Obama noted that he “campaigned on the promise of change. Change we can believe in, the slogan went. And right now I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change or that I can deliver it.”

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. In Democratic politics, the explanation offered by nominees in 1992, 1996, 2004 -- and recycled again Tuesday -- is that Democrats, however eager to achieve campaign finance reforms, should not “unilaterally disarm” under existing laws, as long as doing so might be self-injurious.

The knife-fighters on Obama’s mind are the hundreds of Republican-friendly businesses, wealthy individuals and interest groups eager to unseat him. Unconstrained, they have contributed huge sums since 2011 to help nominate GOP presidential candidates. The Obama campaign has made no secret in recent weeks of its concerns that independent groups will bombard the airwaves with negative advertising about the president -- ads that could help defeat him.

Just weeks ago, senior campaign adviser David Axelrod assailed Mitt Romney for what Axelrod called the candidate’s none-too-subtle “dog whistles” to his super PAC to take down serious challengers with negative ads, even while claiming an arm’s-length relationship. Obama’s own announcement Tuesday through his campaign team was a “dog whistle” of its own, encouraging Democrats to regard Karl Rove and the Koch brothers -- the brain and bucks behind the largest GOP super PACs -- as threats.

The president’s campaign advisers said the super PAC supporting Obama, unlike its GOP alternatives, would disclose its donors, and that Obama, Vice President Biden, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden will not appear in person at super PAC fundraisers, in an effort to enhance the perception that they are not in cahoots with PAC strategists.

Obama, trying to keep his job despite weak economic indicators, is vulnerable to a barrage of ads focused on his words and deeds in office. Early versions created by the Republican National Committee and posted to the Web this year have highlighted the president’s “broken promises” -- getting a jump on the general election campaign. Academic researchers believe the effects of the Citizens United ruling have already impacted the trajectory of the GOP primary race.

The amounts of money now sloshing through super PACs in some cases exceed the resources raised under legal limits by candidates’ campaigns and by the two parties, tilting influence away from small-dollar donors and even the candidates. Contributions to the super PACs are unlimited and donors do not have to be disclosed. The PACs and the candidates are barred from coordinating strategies with one another. Reports filed with the FEC as of Feb. 7 show that independent contributions to the new entities have exceeded $98.6 million in this cycle.

Obama’s team studied Romney’s campaign and the pro-Romney super PACs, which have throttled the president as well as GOP primary candidates Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich with negative advertising. With Obama’s blessing, they decided that the pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action -- which has raised more than $4 million, according to the most recent federal report -- needed some help. Obama campaign officials said Tuesday they were persuaded to lend a hand to Priorities USA because GOP super PACs might raise $500 million to put a Republican in the White House.

"This is largely a reflection of the intensity on the Republican side," a campaign official said. "We knew Citizens United opened the door to an increase in spending. We had no idea that a half-billion dollars would come on line for Republicans for one singular purpose: to defeat the president." 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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