By MARSHA MERCER
President Barack Obama is converting his campaign apparatus to a tax-exempt organization aimed at pushing his agenda. It’s a bold but risky move.
The newly created Organizing for Action will accept unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations.
The strategy could be a way for Obama to assure his legacy through legislative accomplishments and beat the second-term curse, a supposed phenomenon of the modern era that says most re-elected presidents have less –than-successful second terms.
Or the strategy could backfire and bring disillusionment to the idealistic young people Obama hopes to motivate. That would be more than a setback to his progressive agenda. That would be a curse that could damn Democrats in future elections.
Fred Wertheimer, a leading campaign finance reformer, was among the first to sound an alarm.
“It opens the door to opportunities for government corruption by allowing corporations and individuals to provide unlimited amounts of money to directly benefit the president’s interest and potentially to receive government benefits and favors in return,” Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said in a statement. His group describes itself as working to eliminate the undue influence of big money in American politics.
“This would take President Obama about as far away as he could possibly get from the goal he set in 2008 to ‘change the way business is done in Washington,’” said Wertheimer.
The last thing Democrats need is to alienate the fans Obama brought out in droves in 2008 and 2012. Organizing for Action does plan to disclose names of donors, even though the law doesn’t require it. Aides told the New York Times they were unsure whether individual amounts would also be released. It would help if they just said yes to full transparency.
The new group is the successor to Organizing for America, the Obama campaign arm that operated as part of the Democratic National Committee. Organizing for Action is separate from the national party and is being chartered as a 501(c)(4) organization, which must operate exclusively for the promotion of social welfare. These groups may lobby. Donations are generally not tax deductible as charitable contributions.
Obama’s position on corporate contributions evolved as he faced competition from well-funded Republicans. Wertheimer noted that Obama had refused corporate contributions for his 2009 inauguration. Planners of the 2012 Democratic National Convention initially refused corporate cash but later reversed themselves and accepted $20 million from banks and other sponsors. Obama accepted corporate contributions for his 2013 inauguration, including $250,000 from ExxonMobil.
The Organizing for Action is being run by some of Obama’s closest political advisers. Michelle Obama announced the new grassroots effort in a video three days before the inauguration. Typical of their firm grasp of the obvious, news outlets mostly focused on her new hairstyle.
It’s “the next step in our grassroots movement and will be crucial to finishing what we started,” the president wrote in a note on the Organizing for Action website.
Organizing for Action plans a grassroots structure with local control while running expensive, campaign-style TV ads.
Let’s assume that supporters are not turned off by the potential fat cat influence on the second term. Does that mean it’s smooth sailing for Organizing for Action? Not exactly. Some Democrats worry that the group will drain energy and support from the party.
“We need a unified organization that will bring about victories in 2013 and 2014, and we don’t need to be splitting our efforts,” Fred Hudson, vice chairman of the Virginia Democratic party, told Beth Reinhard of the National Journal.
“It’s a recipe for how to lose an election. We’ve been told there will be no competition for fundraising, but that’s difficult for me to accept, and there will certainly be competition for staff and volunteers,” Hudson said.
Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and Organizing for Action’s chairman, said before the inauguration the group will focus on gun control, immigration and climate change.
Traditionally, a second-term president has a short time to accomplish anything. By the second year, attention shifts to the midterm congressional elections, and by the third, the next presidential campaign is underway. The lame duck president may find himself not only fighting irrelevancy but scandal, as Nixon and Clinton did.
In his inaugural address, Obama emphasized “collective action.” He used the word “together” seven times and “we” five dozen times in 15 minutes. You might say he was organizing for action or for a strategy that holds both promise and peril for his second term.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.