Standing beneath an Alexander Calder mobile in an atrium filled with modern art, President Barack Obama said he’d like to “roam around a bit and check stuff out” in the home of former Microsoft executive Jon Shirley.
This was no social visit, though. It was business. Obama had flown to Seattle to thank the 63 people who’d paid a $16,200 per-plate admission to Shirley’s museum-like home overlooking Lake Washington.
“If we don’t have a partner on the other side, we’re going to have to go and do it ourselves,” the president said, a plea to donors to help elect more congressional Democrats.
Obama often says he’s run his last race. Yet he hasn’t stopped campaigning, and his investment in the 2014 congressional elections is earlier and more aggressive than in the 2010 midterm contests.
The change is a reflection of the political conditions then and now. In 2009, Obama was in his first year and pushing for a new health-care system. Now, he must protect that law as it is implemented by preventing Republican gains that would have him vetoing Obamacare repeals in his final two years in office.
On a three-day trip last week, he hopscotched from Seattle to San Francisco to Los Angeles to attend seven fundraisers that generated at least $6.5 million for his party’s candidates, based on reported ticket prices and crowd counts.
This year, the president has headlined 38 events for the major Democratic Party committees, twice as many as 2009. The Democrats are defending a six-seat majority in the Senate and must gain a net of 17 seats in the U.S. House to take control of that chamber after the 2014 races.
Obama-led events such as the $1 million one at Shirley’s house are boosting the bottom line. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee together raised $108.7 million through October, besting their Republican counterparts by $26.8 million. The president’s 21 appearances for the Democratic National Committee are helping it climb out of a post-election $20 million debt.
“When the going gets tough in a second term, it’s actually where folks lean most on the president -- his fundraising prowess,” said Sara Fagen, who served as White House political director for former President George W. Bush.
A presidential fundraiser is no chicken dinner in a hotel ballroom. It’s a spectacle -- complete with Secret Service agents, motorcycle police escorts and armored vehicles -- that donors won’t soon forget.
“Nothing matches the excitement, the buzz, the entourage factor of a presidential visit,” said Ari Fleischer, Bush’s press secretary. “When you drop a mention of attending that kind of a fundraiser, it credentials you.”
Obama stepped off Air Force One as the sun set behind Mount Rainier in Washington state on Nov. 24 -- a “spectacular sight” as he later told donors. He pointed to the orange-and-pink back-lit mountain as he slid into an armored vehicle with top aide Valerie Jarrett, who was by his side at most of the fundraisers.
The motorcade wound its way to a dense neighborhood near the Seattle Golf & Country Club. Environmental activists hoisting a replica of the Keystone XL pipeline -- a controversial oil transportation project that his administration could soon rule on -- gathered in a knot near the driveway of Thomas Campion’s home.
Obama stayed for about an hour with the 30 donors who’d paid as much as $32,400 to attend the DNC party hosted by Campion, a youth-clothing executive. Afterward, Obama headed to Shirley’s home, where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Washington Governor Jay Inslee joined him.
The next morning, Air Force One headed to San Francisco, where he gave a speech about immigration in the city’s Chinatown before resuming the money push.
About 400 people, some dressed in tuxedos and cocktail dresses despite the 1:30 p.m. hour, awaited Obama at the SFJAZZ Center for a DNC event. They’d paid $500 to $15,000 to be there, the higher prices buying access to presidential handshakes and photographs. Singer Esperanza Spalding entertained the younger crowd.
Obama began his remarks with light ribbing about the independent character of San Franciscans.
“There’ve been at least five protests that I don’t know what they’re protesting,” he said. “That’s sort of par for the course in San Francisco.”
Obama had to juggle fundraisers. About the same time, at Marc Benioff’s multi-home complex near the Presidio, 30 people were gathering. This pricier, more exclusive DNC affair, like Campion’s, was off-limits to reporters. Other times reporters were permitted to listen to Obama’s prepared remarks before being whisked out of the room as the president began taking donor questions.
Benioff, the founder of Salesforce.com, has said he doesn’t consider himself a Republican or Democrat. He recently gave money to a political committee for House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.
Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, said Obama’s discussion with the Benioff group covered the same topics donors typically raise -- the troubled healthcare.gov roll-out, immigration legislation, and lack of investment in infrastructure and research.
Obama’s 4 p.m. departure from Benioff’s meant he was halfway done with the day’s fundraising tasks. Air Force One was waiting to ferry the presidential entourage to Los Angeles.
Obama’s 38 fundraisers during his fifth year in office exceed those of Bush, who participated in 17 fundraising events at the same time in his presidency. President Bill Clinton out-performed them both, racking up 77 donor events in his fifth year, said Brendan Doherty, a U.S. Naval Academy political science professor who wrote a book last year on presidential fundraising.
Like Obama, Clinton wanted to resuscitate a debt-ridden DNC after a successful presidential re-election campaign.
“They all take the role of party leader very seriously,” Doherty said.
After the short flight to Los Angeles and a helicopter hop to Beverly Hills, Obama met privately with the family of the Transportation Security Administration officer recently shot to death at Los Angeles International Airport.
Then, his motorcade sped him to the gated community where Hall of Fame basketball player Magic Johnson and his wife, Cookie, live. Even in Beverly Hills, where residents coexist with celebrities, people stood in their driveways to wave to the motorcade and snap photographs and shoot videos with their mobile phones.
White House Valet
Obama slipped inside Johnson’s house to mingle with the guests, including actor Samuel L. Jackson, who’d paid up to $15,000 for presidential access. Others, paying $2,500, could sip wine and cocktails in a white, wedding reception-style tent set up next to Johnson’s mansion. Obama took his place at a podium between U.S. and California flags and spoke for 20 minutes.
Nearby, 120 donors were finishing dinner at entertainment executive Haim Saban’s sprawling property. A heated tent, adorned with mauve fabric and arrangements of pink roses, covered part of the grounds that included some of Saban’s lighted animal-shaped topiary.
Husband-and-wife actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson sat closest to the transparent podium. Saban, whose company produced Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and other children’s programs, began his introduction of Obama by saying he and his wife had enjoyed an “intimate” dinner at the White House days earlier. He complained there had been no valet parking -- unlike at his own party, he pointed out -- and offered, jokingly, to underwrite a White House valet service.
The next morning Obama had one more money stop: the Hancock Park Spanish-style home of composer Michael Skloff and Marta Kauffman, who produced the 1990s sit-com “Friends.” The breakfast-time event for the DNC -- which cost as much as $32,400 per person -- drew 30 donors.
That marked Obama’s 21st fundraiser this year for the DNC, which had raised $54.4 million as of October, while the Republican National Committee has pulled in $68 million.
“The president has invested time and energy to support the party,” DNC spokesman Michael Czin said. “He continues to be an incredibly strong draw for us.”
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