Obama Criticizes ‘Special Interest’ Money in Politics Despite Big Money 2008 Campaign

January 26, 2010 - 9:58 PM
President Obama was critical last week of the Supreme Court's ruling in a case that rolled back government restrictions on political speech, despite his own record-breaking fundraising for his successful 2008 campaign race for the White House.

President Barack Obama (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – President Barack Obama was highly critical last week of the Supreme Court’s ruling in a First Amendment case that rolled back government restrictions on political speech, despite his own record-breaking fundraising for his successful 2008 campaign race for the White House, and despite his reversal in 2008 to stick with public financing for his campaign.

The high court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission  allows corporations, unions, and organizations to spend without restrictions toward the election of a candidate, but not contribute to the candidate’s campaign or coordinate the expenditures with a campaign. The ruling struck down many restrictions on political giving, including much of the McCain-Feingold law of 2002.

Despite the court’s ruling, Obama said he would work with Congress to impose new limits.

“With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics,” Obama said on Friday in a statement shortly after the court’s ruling. “It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

But when Obama’s campaign became a fundraising juggernaut in 2008, the Democratic nominee reversed himself from a pledge he had made during his party’s primary contest.

In a Common Cause questionnaire dated Nov. 27, 2007, then-Senator Obama said, “If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.”

But Obama held a different view on June 19, 2008, making a Web video on his campaign site, proclaiming to have created a “parallel” public financing system.

“We have created a parallel public financing system where the American people decide if they want to support a campaign, they can get on the Internet and finance it, and they will have as much access and influence over the course and direction of our campaign that has traditionally been reserved for the wealthy and the powerful,” Obama said.

Yet the numbers were hardly parallel. Obama’s presidential campaign raised $452.8 million compared to McCain, who raised $204.4 million.

That was largely because McCain was constrained by the same public financing system used by both presidential nominees in the 2004 race: Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry. In 2004, Bush raised $256 million compared to Kerry’s $215.9 million.

Obama’s talk of a campaign fueled by a groundswell of small donations turned out to not be the case.A Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) study says that 26 percent of donors to Obama’s presidential campaign gave $200 or less, the definition of a small donation. That’s about the same as the 25 percent for Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.

Most of the contributions to Obama were from repeat donors or bundled donations, the CFI report says. The study shows that Obama received 80 percent more from large donors, defined as giving $1,000 or more, than from small donors. Meanwhile, 47 percent of his total contributions came from large donors, compared to 60 percent for McCain.

In 2004, Bush raised 60 percent of his campaign funds in large donations, while Kerry raised 56 percent in large donations.

The case ruled on by the Supreme Court originated from a 90-minute film made in 2007 by the conservative non-profit group Citizens United about Hillary Clinton, then a candidate for president.

In its ruling, the court struck down a law that prohibited companies, unions, and other organizations from using money from their general treasuries to produce and run their own ads urging the election or defeat of a political candidate. The ruling also struck down the portion of the McCain-Feingold rule that barred issue-advocacy ads close to an election.

For an example of how things have changed consider that in 2008 the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) political action committee spent $27 million in independent expenditures on the election of Obama, although the union did not contribute that much to Obama’s campaign nor did it coordinate the expenditures, which would have been illegal.

Now, however, the SEIU will be able to make independent expenditures directly out of its treasury for the election or defeat of candidates. But it will not be able to contribute unlimited amounts to the candidate’s campaign or coordinate the expenditure with the campaign.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion wrote, “The censorship we now confront is vast in its reach.”

Obama said he would work with Congress to impose new limits that were not subject to the court’s ruling.

“This ruling gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington--while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates,” Obama said on Jan. 22.

“That's why I am instructing my Administration to get to work immediately with Congress on this issue," he said.  "We are going to talk with bipartisan Congressional leaders to develop a forceful response to this decision. The public interest requires nothing less."