In his first term, President Obama has so far held 132 fundraising events, including two back to back Wednesday night at the tony W Hotel in Washington. More than a few conservative pundits have noted that the number of pocket-padding evenings eclipses more than the president’s five predecessors combined during their first terms.
Yet the money hasn’t come easy. Whether or not he’s skirting the responsibilities of his day job, being constantly on the road for his reelection invites attack for any president. The cost of operating Air Force One–about $179,000 per hour–hasn’t helped his image with cost-cutting lawmakers in Congress, either. A Fox Business Network segment last week dubbed Obama the “fundraiser-in-chief” and accused him of avoiding his official duties. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus earlier published an op-ed alleging that Obama’s governing strategy was “reelection comes first.”
But The Daily Beast has learned that the aggressive fundraising schedule was the Obama team’s compromise to be able to compete with big conservative money going primarily to super PACs.
According to officials familiar with administration and campaign discussions, when Obama was confronted with the power of these conservative super PACs late last year, staffers discussed ways to harness the president’s fundraising potential without dirtying his hands by attending Democratic super PAC events. Such groups are the outgrowth of a Supreme Court ruling, striking down part of the federal campaign-finance law, which he decried in his State of the Union speech last year.
Rather than fundraise for super PACs himself, the president decided he would send campaign and administration emissaries to the events (legally, Obama officials couldn’t ask for the money outright, but could hobnob with donors before checks exchanged hands.) Yet to keep Democratic campaign coffers full, the president agreed to an ambitious fundraising schedule, as many as six each week—that was certain to invite criticism.
The compromise makes sense to campaign-finance analysts, who attest to Obama’s enormous fundraising star power with voters. As conservative super PACs accept limitless donations from wealthy donors, the progressive Priorities USA has struggled to bring in the same large dollar amounts.
“If you’re going to raise money for the campaign and the party committee, you are going to have to turn the volume up in terms of the number of events you going to,” says campaign-finance lawyer Kenneth Gross. “I don’t know if anyone likes to go to fundraisers, but considering what they’re up against, they’re happy to accept the money.”
Obama’s efforts have been working. Despite millions that flowed to GOP candidates from super PACs during their primary slugfest, Obama’s campaign fundraising has completely eclipsed Romney’s. The most recent filings to the Federal Election Commission show that Obama had brought in $196.6 million compared to the Romney campaign’s $88.4 million, a disparity that Obama’s headquarters in Chicago finds pleasing, but not yet comfortable.
The White House, meanwhile, has spent lots of time clarifying the fact that whenever Obama flies or drives to a fundraiser, the campaign is responsible for reimbursing for transportation and security costs. “As you know, we follow all the rules and regulations to ensure that the DNC or other relevant political committee pays what is required for the president or first lady to travel to political events,” Press Secretary Jay Carney said last month. Conservatives argue that Obama’s team often sandwiches campaign events between official speeches as a way to reduce the outsize price tag.
Other analysts say that Obama is simply utilizing the perks of the job, pointing out that the reason his fundraising totals are unmatched by previous presidents is because of Obama’s unique ability to attract big money. In three hours on Wednesday evening, Obama raised more than $2 million, split between his reelection campaign and the DNC. That kind of money, assembled in a ballroom munching on rubber chicken just a block from the White House, must be hard to turn down.
Staff writer Miranda Green contributed to this report.