President Barack Obama implored supporters at a dinner today to embrace a new group that hopes to stir grassroots enthusiasm for his second-term agenda.
Obama said he was confident he can win legislation to cut the deficit, help reduce gun violence and revise immigration laws, if support builds in the public to “break through some of the gobbledygook of our politics here.”
“You can’t change Washington from the inside,” he said, adding that after his 2008 campaign victory he erred by failing to engage the public as he pursued his agenda. “That energy just kind of dissipated,” he said.
The dinner, attended by about 75 people at a luxury hotel near the White House, was part of a two-day “founders summit” for Organizing for Action, a nonprofit advocacy group that Obama’s former campaign leaders founded about eight weeks ago. OFA will use some of the Obama campaign’s assets, including its e-mail list of millions of supporters and its social-media brand, to press Congress on issues such as gun control and an immigration law rewrite.
The dinner resembled dozens of re-election fundraisers Obama held last year, with gourmet meals served on hotel china. Yet without the urgency of an election, some of the most reliable Democratic fundraisers chose to skip the meal.
“I’m just not ready to start writing checks; it’s only 60 days since President Obama got sworn in,” said Mel Heifetz, a Philadelphia real-estate investor and gay-rights activist, who gave $1 million last year to a super-political action committee that worked to help re-elect Obama.
Other major super-PAC donors sitting out at least the initial OFA push include Steve Mostyn, a Texas trial lawyer who gave more than $3 million, and Irwin Jacobs, a California technology entrepreneur, who contributed $2 million. Head of Chicago-based Ariel Investments LLC, John Rogers Jr., and former UBS Americas Chairman Robert Wolf, Obama backers who raised millions for his campaigns, don’t plan to attend, either.
The response illustrates the challenge of turning Obama’s electoral victory machine into a durable political force. During its first-term iteration, as Organizing for America, fellow Democrats grumbled that the group was alienating factions of the party as it pushed the health-care law.
The revamped OFA already faces criticism. Democracy 21 and other Washington-based government watchdogs have accused it of selling access to the president, saying the group’s structure marks another move away from the campaign-finance rules Obama once supported. He has reversed course on other promises to limit big donors’ influence, including condoning a campaign super-PAC started by former aides that accepted unlimited contributions, and allowing corporate donations to pay for his second inauguration.
OFA doesn’t legally have to disclose its donors. The group will periodically share its contributors’ names, said OFA Chairman Jim Messina, who managed Obama’s 2012 campaign; it has yet to do so. Other voluntary concessions: Messina said the group won’t accept corporate or lobbyist money and will steer clear of electoral politics.
Democracy 21, joined by the Campaign Legal Center, sent Obama a letter today saying his involvement with OFA raises questions about his compliance with the Ethics in Government Act ban on the solicitation of gifts by executive branch officials.
“Organizing for Action is a mistake by President Obama that he should correct,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer. “OFA is also a terrible precedent for the future that if left in place will spread to members of Congress.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney has called accusations that Obama was selling access to a special-interest groups “absurd and wrong.”
An invitation to a two-day summit that includes tonight’s dinner, shared by a donor with Bloomberg News, listed a $50,000 suggested donation to become a founding member. Some participants said they will attend for free as a way to become more familiar with the group.
Katie Hogan, a spokeswoman for the group, declined to discuss the specifics of fundraising or give details about the summit.
Speaking to about 70 attendees today in the Chandelier Room, long-time Obama staffers praised the work of their “family” of volunteers and urged them to continue backing the president’s agenda.
“It’s not yes he can, it’s yes we can,” said Messina.
In introductory remarks, the group’s founders stressed their organization’s reliance on volunteer support.
“We are at our core, always have been, and always will be a grassroots organization,” said Jon Carson, the group’s executive director. “Issues are our focus.”
Event attendees are receiving briefings by some of Obama’s former top aides, including ex-senior adviser David Plouffe, ex-deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, and Lisa Jackson, who served as Environmental Protection Agency director during the president’s first term.
The morning session was attended largely by long-time political aides, field staffers and volunteers. Only a handful of top fundraisers were spotted in the audience, including Democratic National Committee Treasurer Andrew Tobias and public relations executive Michael Kempner.
Among those planning to attend is Andy Spahn, political consultant to Obama supporter and head of DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. Jeffrey Katzenberg, his spokesman said. San Antonio businessman Henry Munoz, whose work helping to raise millions for Obama led to a job as the DNC’s finance chairman, is also expected to stop by the event.
Orin Kramer, general partner at Boston Provident Partners, LP, is supporting the group, though won’t be attending the summit, he said in an e-mail to Bloomberg.
In private meetings and phone calls, Messina and Carson have reached out to campaign donors to sell them on the new organization, which will be based in Chicago with an office in Washington. Their requests come as some fundraisers angle for administration appointments to ambassadorships and other positions. OFA, in seeking to harness the Obama campaign’s grassroots fundraising prowess, is including a link to a donations page each time it sends a message to the millions of people on its e-mail list.
Democratic donors say the new group may face practical challenges, stressing the difficulty of raising money for a cause rather than a candidate.
“Most of the people that I hit up for the campaign did it because they did not want to run the risk” of Republican challenger Mitt Romney defeating Obama, said Manuel Sanchez, a Chicago lawyer who helped bring in millions of dollars for the campaign through his outreach to the Latino community. “Now you’re talking about purely policy, and frankly it doesn’t have the same pizazz.”
OFA runs Obama’s Facebook page, “liked” by 35 million users, and his @barackobama Twitter handle which, with 28 million followers, is one of the most popular in the world.
In one of its first actions, on Feb. 22, OFA asked supporters to call and send Twitter messages to Congress in support of Obama’s gun-control plan.
The group also is leasing Obama’s e-mail. A message sent yesterday requested that recipients use Facebook to share a graphic showing newspaper headlines about the local impact of federal budget reductions with the caption: “Severe budget cuts are hurting communities around the country. Tell Congress it’s time to act.” More than 5,000 people shared the graphic, and another 68,000 “liked” it.
DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said OFA’s work will complement the party organization by keeping volunteers engaged between elections.
“The DNC couldn’t be more relevant; I actually am really glad OFA has decided to stay active,” Wasserman Schultz said in an interview on MSNBC yesterday.
The president plans to headline at least 14 fundraisers for Democratic candidates this year, according to officials, events that may have more appeal to his supporters.
“Politics has its seasons,” said Heifetz, the Democratic and gay-rights donor who is skipping the OFA event. “The next thing that is coming up is primaries, and that’s when I start thinking of backing someone again.”