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The Amusing Alarm Over Obama's 2014 Fixation

Getty/Kevin Winter

As the Republican rout in the 2010 midterms loomed, official Washington had already assigned much of the blame to President Barack Obama’s half-hearted support for imperiled congressional Democrats. Two months before the election, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote in Politico:

It’s hard to talk to any House Democratic operative these days without getting an earful about how politically tone deaf this White House has been… They all speak to a much broader feeling among House Democrats that they have walked the plank on many tough votes for Obama—and gotten very little in return.

“They’ll say they did everything that he asked them to do, he didn't do enough to help them fundraising-wise, he didn’t do enough to focus on the economy and his overall message was bad,” said a top Democratic official.

This story line hardened after the wipeout: Obama was an above-it-all loner, too fixated on his own legacy and airy “new politics” notions to engage in the hard work of helping his fellow Democrats get and stay elected. In a representative critique, Maureen Dowd lamented that the aloof Obama lacked the capacity for basic political tussle possessed by Bill Clinton, who “often manages to show the current president just how the game should be played.”

Flash forward to this week, as Obama embarks on a trip to California to raise money for House Democrats, the first of 14 fundraisers he’s holding this year for the Democratic Party, up from only five that he held in 2009. Is this a sign that he learned a lesson from the 2010 disaster and the lashing he received afterward, and is determined to do better in his second midterm election? No—that would be too consistent a reaction for the Beltway. Obama’s fundraising—doing what he was slammed for not doing enough of four years ago—is now proof of his hypocritical betrayal of his principles. As the Washington Post put it Wednesday, in a critical report that was quickly seized on by Republicans:

Obama’s strategy has been viewed as an insurance policy against a Republican-controlled House that has shown little interest in supporting major pieces of his second-term agenda. But if his target is the GOP, Obama himself has become the target of one-time allies in the open-government watchdog community who are disillusioned by the president’s reluctance to fully embrace the campaign finance reform he once vowed to make a top priority…. “It is an unbelievable irony that he has typified the permanent campaign fundraising, but at the same time was the one who said he would clean up Washington,” said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, an open-government advocacy group.

The frustration of the campaign finance reformers is justified. For all his “new politics” talk in the 2008 campaign, and his subsequent tongue-lashing of the Supreme Court justices seated before him at his 2010 State of the Union address for their Citizens United ruling eviscerating campaign contribution limits, Obama has put precious little effort into overhauling the system. After some initial reluctance, he gave his go-ahead last year to one of the super PACs allowed by Citizens United, saying it would be foolish to unilaterally disarm against the unlimited fundraising deployed on the other side. Just recently, he infuriated reformers again with the creation of an entity, Organizing for Action, that will raise unlimited funds in support of his agenda. While the group will disclose its major donors, a crucial distinction from other so-called “social welfare” groups like the Karl Rove-founded Crossroads GPS, it’s understandable for reformers to be anxious about this expanded use of the unlimited-contribution model.

But underlying the tut-tutting about Obama’s fundraising is a broader, longstanding confusion in the Washington establishment over what is to be expected of Obama. We scorn him for seeking to hold himself above the fray and then lash him with high dudgeon as soon he deigns to descend into the muck. Never mind that he is following in the footsteps of his two-term predecessors—as the Post noted, “Ronald Reagan participated in 20 fundraisers for Republicans in 1985, and George W. Bush did 14 in 2005…. Bill Clinton, committed to helping the Democratic Party eliminate debt after the 1996 campaign, appeared at a whopping 77 fundraisers in 1997.”

Even before Obama had embarked on any fundraising, the Post reported breathlessly in a front-page story last month that Obama was making it a priority to win back a Democratic House majority in 2014:

Obama, fresh off his November reelection, began almost at once executing plans to win back the House in 2014, which he and his advisers believe will be crucial to the outcome of his second term and to his legacy as president. He is doing so by trying to articulate for the American electorate his own feelings—an exasperation with an opposition party that blocks even the most politically popular elements of his agenda.

Obama has committed to raising money for fellow Democrats, agreed to help recruit viable candidates, and launched a political nonprofit group dedicated to furthering his agenda and that of his congressional allies. The goal is to flip the Republican-held House back to Democratic control, allowing Obama to push forward with a progressive agenda on gun control, immigration, climate change and the economy during his final two years in office, according to congressional Democrats, strategists and others familiar with Obama’s thinking.

This, too, caused fainting spells on the right: “The Washington Post reveals the real second-term priority,” warned the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Can you imagine? A president who passed a lot of stuff when his party held both houses of Congress and has been all but totally stymied since losing the House has decided that it would be in his interest to…win back the House. Next thing you know, he’s going to try to help a Democrat get elected president in 2016 to make sure achievements like the Affordable Care Act are preserved.

Driving this confused critique are two fundamental misapprehensions. First is the recurring failure to appreciate how much a president’s success at driving his agenda depends on basic systemic factors, starting with the partisan makeup of the second, coequal branch of government. Second is another manifestation of the president-as-king myth—that the bully pulpit is so omnipotent that all a president needs to do is give some speeches or White House press conferences to get the country behind him. One need look no further than the National Rifle Association’s success at blocking legislation favored by a majority of Americans to realize that the bully pulpit alone is inadequate to the task, and that it would help to spend some money on behalf of the legislation. After a bruising first term in office, Obama is painfully aware of these realities. But when he tries to address them, the Beltway blanches, to the bewilderment of those who’ve seen the realities that Obama is up against.

“This system is brought to you courtesy of the United States Supreme Court,” said David Jones, a former fundraiser for Clinton and Al Gore. “The opponents of his agenda are spending tens of millions of dollars to derail his agenda and he can’t unilaterally disarm. In today’s world it takes resources to get your message out to the public and in order to raise resources you have to have fundraisers and send out emails and make phone calls.”

Doug Sosnik, a senior advisor to Clinton during his second term, put it more tartly. “It’s an absurdity. He’s damned if he didn’t and he’s damned if he does,” he said. The $50 million that Organizing for Action is seeking to raise, he said, was a relative pittance compared to what is being spent on the other side by groups like Crossroads GPS and the NRA. “If you look at the role of money in politics and the amount of money in politics, $50 million is a lot different in this world than it was in 1996. We need to sort of get a grip.”

That’s unlikely. There are 19 months until the 2014 midterms—plenty of time for more handwringing about our aloof president who dares to play politics.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis