It’s hard to read Jane Mayer’s New Yorker piece on campaign fundraising without thinking about how embarrassing and corrupting it is that our system expects the president of the United States to suck up to big shots so he can buy 30-second TV ads on NCIS.
“There’s been no thanks for anyone!” the major Democratic donor says. He adds that in 2008 he gave “multiple millions” to groups working to elect Obama. But, he notes, although he has attended various White House functions, and has met Obama on several occasions, “I don’t think they have a clue who I am. I don’t think they even know how much I gave.” He says that he has been introduced twice to Jarrett, “and neither time did she remember who I am.” Instead, he says, “she seemed to think she was blessing me by breathing in the same space.” Despite repeated pitches, he has not yet given money to Priorities USA. In his view, the Obama White House has not followed the fundamental rule of donor maintenance, which he himself has practiced while fund-raising for other causes: “You have to suck up!” With Obama, he says, “I don’t know if it’s a personality thing, an ego thing, or an intellectual thing. I just don’t get it. But people want to be kissed. They want to be thanked.”
That’s just one of the good anecdotes from Mayer’s fascinating if ultimately not-entirely-convincing look at the Obama campaign’s fundraising, how it’s been upended by the influx of unrestricted donations from billionaires, and why Obama could become “the only sitting President in recent history to be outspent in a campaign.”
This is a sympathetic portrait of an introverted president whose refreshing disdain for Clinton-style glad-handing and donor-stroking has helped threaten his re-election. But the sympathy goes entirely too far, it seems to me. It’s a bit much to have a politician who’s arguably as responsible for the recent escalation in the fundraising arms race as John Roberts, Sheldon Adelson, or the Kochs, portrayed as something of a victim of his own conscience.
Obama, after all, spent far more in the last election than Bush and Kerry had combined just four years earlier. He outspent John McCain a stunning $746 million to $358 million in 2008, and outspent McCain four to one after September 1.
That came after Obama famously, and cynically, broke his promise to accept public financing of his 2008 general campaign (George W. Bush rejected primary matching funds in 2000), becoming the first presidential candidate to reject a cornerstone of campaign-finance reform and making McCain the last to accept it .
This is all we get on that from Mayer:
Obama acknowledges that his record on campaign-finance issues is not entirely pure. In 2008, after championing campaign-finance reform in the Senate, he broke his own pledge to accept public financing as a Presidential candidate, and became instead the first nominee since Watergate to depend entirely on private funds.
Now that the floodgates Obama helped open may swamp his bid for a second term, his team is carping about all the money flooding the system and why their guy’s purity is hamstringing him.
The Obama camp says they didn’t make the system; they just have to play in it, which is true. But let’s not pretend they haven’t played hardball.
For all of his camp’s portrayal of a reluctant fundraiser, and Mayer’s reporting on this is convincing, Obama sure does a lot of it (as she notes). In the last sixteen months, the president has attended about two hundred fundraisers while trying to hold down that day job (meantime, Mitt Romney flies to a foreign country to raise millions, including from a billionaire whose company is under investigation for bribery). This is unprecedented, as you can see from this chart I whipped up of fundraisers by presidents seeking reelection (Obama’s is through July 23 and, yes, Reagan’s number was zero):