Less than two weeks before the inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama's inaugural committee and his transition project face potential budget shortfalls. They jointly need some $50 million, and fundraising appears to have been lagging.
The inaugural committee pays for the official inaugural festivities: the lavish balls, the jumbo video screens on the National Mall, most of the parade activities and almost everything else except the swearing-in ceremony itself. The transition project finances the grunt work of the new administration, ranging from recommending appointees to assessing the condition of agencies.
But the days when candidate Obama could sometimes raise more than $50 million in a single month are long gone. The economy has gone bad, and money doesn't gush the way it used to. So far, the inaugural committee has raised about $27 million, 60 percent of its projected budget.
"Certainly people are looking to see what sort of contribution they can make," says Linda Douglass, spokeswoman for the inaugural committee. "But we are on target."
The committee accepts contributions up to $50,000. So far, 350 donors have given the maximum. The sum is roughly seven times more than a donor could legally give to the Obama campaign. Among the donors are many Hollywood celebrities who gave to the campaign, including Steven Spielberg, Samuel Jackson and George Lucas.
Inaugural money also comes in bundles — contributions collected by a single person. More than 100 campaign bundlers have raised funds for the inaugural committee. Twenty bundlers have hit the committee's self-imposed ceiling of $300,000.
The transition project takes contributions of up to $5,000, and just 220 donors have given that much. The project reports 56,000 contributors, and a spokesman says the average contribution is $70. A big reason for the small gifts is that the transition benefited from the Obama campaign's database of four million donors soon after the election. The vast majority of people in the database are small donors.
The transition budget also is much smaller than the inaugural committee's — only $12 million. The government pays $5.3 million, with the rest coming from donors. The spokesman declined to say whether the project would make its budget, but said that it expects to raise "the amount of money we need."
Neither of these fundraising efforts is regulated the way campaigns are; instead, the Obama operation has imposed its own rules. Inaugural committees used to be rife with corporate money. This year, contributions from corporations, unions, federally registered lobbyists and political action committees are forbidden.
The inaugural committee and the transition project also post their donor information online, another step not required by law. "When you shine light on fundraising in the way that this committee has done," Douglass says, "it really does beat back the notion that people are somehow buying influence."
Even a maximum $50,000 contribution equals just one-fifth of a top-end check to President Bush's second inauguration.
The Obama standard is "far and above anything that the Bush administration ever, ever levied," says Alex Cohen, who writes for Becoming44.org, a blog about the transition by the advocacy group Public Citizen.
But Cohen says shutting out certain donors won't stop special interest pleading. He notes that some donors have been invited to events with incoming administration officials.
"The reality is that a person doesn't need to be a lobbyist or a corporation to have interests before the administration," he says. "To say that no issues come up during these meetings — OK, well, I don't know."
Nobody else knows, either. Those are the kinds of details that don't emerge until an administration starts making decisions that matter to its big donors.