Obama's Record On Political Money One Of Ambivalence

Tuesday's State of the Union address marks the third anniversary of President Obama public criticism of the Supreme Court for its Citizens United ruling. It's also just over one year since he reversed course and embraced a superPAC for his own reelection. The Obama record on political money is one of ambivalence and flip-flops.

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Something that President Obama is not likely to dwell on tonight is the feeble state of campaign finance laws. It was three years ago that he used the State of the Union to challenge the Supreme Court on its Citizens United decision, which encouraged more corporate money in politics. This year, though, he has his own tax-exempt social welfare group backed with corporate contributions to help advance his agenda. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: In 2010, President Obama gazed down at the justices and said that with all due deference...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.

(APPLAUSE)

OVERBY: The Citizens United decision set the stage for big budget ad campaigns by superPACs and 501(c)(4) social welfare groups. Obama and the Democrats attacked these outside spenders throughout the 2010 elections. But in February 2012, Obama flip-flopped on superPACs.

OBAMA: What I've said consistently is we're not going to just unilaterally disarm.

OVERBY: That's from an interview with WBTV in Charlotte, North Carolina. Obama dispatched campaign aides and Cabinet members to raise money for a pro-Obama superPAC. On the campaign trail, he attacked one conservative 501(c)(4) by name: Americans for Prosperity. Now that he's launched the 501(c)(4) group Organizing for Action, AFP is mocking him in a Web ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMERICANS FOR PROSPERITY WEB AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: President Obama has a new tax-free nonprofit group. It's being funded by big corporate donors.

OVERBY: AFP President Tim Phillips says it's just a little payback.

TIM PHILLIPS: He questioned the motives and the way we're put together in a pretty personal way.

OVERBY: And it's not just conservatives who are casting a jaundiced eye toward Obama's record on money and politics. Josh Silver is director of Represent.Us, a group dedicated to cleaning up Washington through a nonpartisan and grassroots campaign.

JOSH SILVER: The reality with President Obama is his rhetoric has never matched his actions.

OVERBY: Take public financing, a linchpin of the post-Watergate campaign laws. Here's Senator Obama in 2006.

OBAMA: Well, I strongly support public financing, and I know Dick does too. He's going to...

OVERBY: And presidential candidate Obama in the 2008 campaign.

OBAMA: We've made the decision not to participate in the public financing system for the general election.

OVERBY: It was a triumph for pragmatism. Obama obliterated old fundraising records with three-quarters of a billion dollars for the 2008 election and more than 1.1 billion for 2012. Meanwhile, the Federal Election Commission is gridlocked and Obama has tried just once to replace any of its lame duck commissioners.

Another example, this year's Inaugural Committee raised corporate money, something it refused to do four years ago. It's also moving more slowly this time around to reveal information about the donors. And there are questions about Organizing for Action. It's blazing a new trail as a privately financed group promoting the president's agenda. Former White House political adviser David Plouffe was interviewed last month on ABC's "This Week."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")

DAVID PLOUFFE: There has to be an inside game, there also has to be an outside game. It's not either or.

OVERBY: Fred Wertheimer isn't buying it. He has lobbied for campaign finance reform since the Watergate era.

FRED WERTHEIMER: Nixon did an awful lot of stuff. But as far as I know, President Nixon never did something like this nor did anyone else.

OVERBY: OFA leaders say that unlike other 501(c)(4)s, they'll make full and regular disclosures of who gave and how much. They also say they won't get into partisan politics in any way. Still, ostensibly nonpartisan 501(c)(4)s routinely pound hostile lawmakers with so-called issue ads. Obama himself was hit with more than a million dollars worth in the 2012 race. Right now, it's hard to say just how OFA will handle next year's mid-term elections. Again, Fred Wertheimer.

WERTHEIMER: In the world of campaign finance and government integrity, I don't judge people by what they say they're going to do. I think they need to be judged by what they do.

OVERBY: Wertheimer says he and his lawyers are exploring the legality of Organizing for Action. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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