How the President Changed His Mind And Embraced Citizens United: “The Price of Principle Had Grown Too High”

November 21st, 2013

Remember 2010? Citizens United was Dred Scott. It would ruin campaign finance law. The President lambasted the Supreme Court Justices at the State of the Union for reversing a century of precedents and opening the floodgates for foreign spending. Oh, weren’t the time so quaint. Come 2012, he changed his mind. In this blog post by Jim Messina, which I blogged about here, the Administration announced that they would take Citizens-United money.

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.

POTUS would rely on SuperPACS to raise a boatload of money. How (and why) did he change his mind?

Double Down has a discussion of his evolution on this topic.

From the start, the White House had been tied in knots over the topic. Given the president’s opposition to Citizens United and his railing against outside money in the midterms, his advisers believed there was no way he could place his imprimatur on such a group. But with Messina convinced that a super PAC would be needed on their side, there were discussions in late 2010 about dispatching a trusted Obaman to run one. Robert Gibbs, Larry Grisolano, and even Plouffe were all names floated but shot down.

So Messina and others created Priorities PAC to compete with Crossroads. But because the President was not affiliated with it, it wasn’t raising any money.

By the end of the year, Priorities had raised only $ 6 million, including the initial DreamWorks deuce; in January, the group brought in a negligible $ 58,000. Katzenberg and Spahn were pounding Messina and Plouffe to convince the president to drop his holier-than-thou-ism and endorse the group. Watching Priorities stagger and Crossroads et al. soar, the advisers agreed that the price of principle had grown too high. At a Sunday meeting in the Roosevelt Room, Messina presented Obama with the Priorities numbers and a revised figure for what the Republican super PACs were likely to raise: $ 660 million. “How sure are you?” Obama asked, slightly staggered. “Very sure,” said Messina. “I think we need to switch our position” on Priorities. They’re sinking without us. Until people understand that it’s important to you, they’re not going to give. The Clinton donors don’t care enough, and our people have never been million-dollar check writers. You gotta give it your seal of approval or it’s not gonna work. Obama detested looking like a hypocrite almost as much as being one. But he hated the idea of losing even more. In early February, it was announced that Obama was officially backing Priorities. Although he, Michelle, and Biden would do nothing actively for the group, his staff and cabinet members would be allowed to attend Priorities fund-raising events. Obama’s reversal was met with multiple yawns: from the press, his grassroots supporters, and donors.

“The price of principle had grown too high.” What a tagline.