Senior Obama campaign officials defend president’s embrace of super PAC

When the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that private organizations, including corporations and unions, could spend unlimited amounts of money on political speech, President Obama decried the decision, warning that it amounted to a "threat to our democracy." Two years later, the Obama campaign has announced that with the president's blessing, it will support a pro-Obama super PAC--a creation of that very ruling--to receive unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and unions for the 2012 presidential campaign.

"We made a decision, announced last night, that we're not going to allow for two sets of rules this election," a senior campaign official said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "A half billion dollars spent against the president's re-election by Republican super PACs is not something that we take lightly, and it ultimately led to our decision that we're not going to unilaterally disarm in this fight. Our message remains the same in terms of the type of things we're fighting for."

"The president did sign off on this decision," the official, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

In a statement sent to supporters Monday night, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said that while the president continues to oppose the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, the Obama campaign wants to "face the reality of the law as it currently stands" and will dispatch senior campaign and White House officials to events sponsored by Priorities USA, the group supporting Obama.

Obama officials will appear publicly with super PAC organizers throughout the campaign season, but they will not make direct fundraising requests on behalf of the group. Also, the president and First Lady will not appear at any events sponsored by Priorities USA. (Romney has attended fundraising events for Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting his candidacy.)

"With so much at stake, we can't allow for two sets of rules in this election, whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm," Messina said, echoing comments Obama made when Priorities USA was established last year by a group of the president's former aides. Messina noted that the campaign would comply with all laws and regulations governing super PACs.

The Republican presidential candidates have benefited enormously from the effort of super PACs in the primary. Winning our Future, a group funded largely by Nevada casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, has raised more than $12 million in support of Newt Gingrich. Restore Our Future brought in about $30 million in support of Romney in 2011.

Obama's decision opens him up to charges that he is abandoning his position on campaign finance rules, an allegation his aides deny. On the Tuesday conference call, campaign officials insisted that embrace of the super PAC doesn't make the president a "flip-flopper" saying it "has absolutely nothing to do with the type of flip-flopping we're seeing from Mitt Romney."

"There is a big difference between Mitt Romney's lack of core principles and the president deciding he's not going to fight with one hand behind his back," said one official.

Monday's shift would not be the first time Obama's actions have not matched his rhetoric on campaign finance issues. While running for the presidency against Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008, Obama chose not to accept public campaign funds, a reversal that allowed him to raise an unlimited amount of money. Like the decision this week, his choice was one of pragmatism over principle--one that ultimately helped him win election to the White House.

Read the full letter from Messina:

In 2010, the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case opened the door to a new wave of so-called Super PACs--non-candidate political committees that can receive and spend unlimited money from special interests. For the first time, these committees could accept money from corporations, not just wealthy individuals.

The decision has accelerated a dangerous trend toward a political system increasingly dominated by big-money interests with disproportionate power to spend freely to influence our elections and our government.

It's a trend the President has fought against, coming into office with a mission to limit special-interest influence in Washington. He put in place the most sweeping ethics reforms in history to close the revolving door between government and lobbyists. And he's overseen the most open administration ever -- reversing Bush-era policies designed to limit Freedom of Information Act requests and disclosing White House visitor records so that Americans can see how their government works.

The President opposed the Citizens United decision. He understood that with the dramatic growth in opportunities to raise and spend unlimited special-interest money, we would see new strategies to hide it from public view. He continues to support a law to force full disclosure of all funding intended to influence our elections, a reform that was blocked in 2010 by a unanimous Republican filibuster in the U.S. Senate. And the President favors action -- by constitutional amendment, if necessary -- to place reasonable limits on all such spending.

But this cycle, our campaign has to face the reality of the law as it currently stands.

Over the last few months, Super PACs affiliated with Republican presidential candidates have spent more than $40 million on television and radio, almost all of it for negative ads.

Last week, filings showed that the Super PAC affiliated with Mitt Romney's campaign raised $30 million in 2011 from fewer than 200 contributors, most of them from the financial sector. Governor Romney personally helped raise money for this group, which is run by some of his closest allies.

Meanwhile, other Super PACs established for the sole purpose of defeating the President -- along with "nonprofits" that also aren't required to disclose the sources of their funding -- have raised more than $50 million. In the aggregate, these groups are expected to spend half a billion dollars, above and beyond what the Republican nominee and party are expected to commit to try to defeat the President.

With so much at stake, we can't allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm.

Therefore, the campaign has decided to do what we can, consistent with the law, to support Priorities USA in its effort to counter the weight of the GOP Super PACs. We will do so only in the knowledge and with the expectation that all of its donations will be fully disclosed as required by law to the Federal Election Commission.

What this change means practically: Senior campaign officials as well as some White House and Cabinet officials will attend and speak at Priorities USA fundraising events. While campaign officials may be appearing at events to amplify our message, these folks won't be soliciting contributions for Priorities USA. I should also note that the President, Vice President, and First Lady will not be a part of this effort; their political activity will remain focused on the President's campaign.

But here's what this doesn't change: the fact that ordinary people stepping up to take control of the political process is essential to our strategy.

This decision will help fill a hole on our side. But it's only one part of the overall effort.

Supporting Priorities USA means that our side will not concede the battles on the air in the months to come, but we continue to believe that this election will be won on the ground. Super PACs haven't opened offices. They haven't hired organizers. They haven't registered voters. They haven't knocked on doors or made the kind of personal contact with voters that we know is the single most effective way to persuade people and turn them out on Election Day.

And this is where we have the advantage. It will be up to us -- the grassroots organization, funded by an average donation of $55 -- to win this election.

It's a point of pride that 98 percent of all our donations are $250 or less. Mitt Romney won't reveal that number about his own campaign, but filings show that just 9 percent of the Romney campaign's money in the fourth quarter of last year came from people giving less than $200.

Americans across the country are supporting the most extensive neighbor-to-neighbor, grassroots organization in history.

It's my hope that by making this decision and doing what we can to neutralize the onslaught of special-interest money, we can ensure that the decisive factor in this election won't be an unprecedented flood of special-interest spending, and the outcome will be back in the hands of ordinary Americans.

Jim Messina
Campaign Manager
Obama for America

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