President Barack Obama implored supporters at a fundraiser-style dinner to embrace a 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 at yesterday’s event, 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 including Google Inc. Chairman Eric Schmidt 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 summit continues today with sessions -- mostly closed to the press -- on issues such as climate change and the federal budget. Participants are hearing from top former aides to the president, including Lisa Jackson, who served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator during Obama’s first term.
Yesterday’s meetings at the St. Regis hotel focused mostly on how to structure Organizing for Action, which is led by Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina and former White House aide Jon Carson. They now serve as OFA’s chairman and executive director, respectively.
Speaking to about 70 attendees yesterday morning in the hotel’s Chandelier Room, Messina and Carson 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.
An invitation to the summit, 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.
Last night’s dinner resembled dozens of re-election fundraisers Obama held last year, with gourmet meals served on hotel china. The president spoke for 15 minutes and then mingled with the crowd, which was dotted with would-be fundraisers such as New York public-relations executive Michael Kempner and former campaign officials.
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.
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.
The president 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, Messina said. He said the group won’t accept corporate or lobbyist money and will steer clear of electoral politics.
Still, Democracy 21, joined by the Campaign Legal Center, sent Obama a letter yesterday 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.”
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.
Orin Kramer, general partner at Boston Provident Partners, LP, is among those giving money to the group, though he isn’t attending the summit, he said in an e-mail to Bloomberg.