WASHINGTON -- One of the more acute challenges confronting President Obama's reelection campaign is retaining donors who have grown disaffected during the first term in office. In a private memo obtained by The Huffington Post, top Obama aides offered a candid template for how they're tackling that task.
Hoping to keep the support of a key Florida supporter, the president's political team suggested that top White House aides give him the sense that his voice was "being heard" inside the administration.
The donor, Ed Haddock, the CEO of Full Sail University, a for-profit technical college in Orlando, was set to meet with top aide Pete Rouse, according to the memo title, though when that meeting would take place is not clear. Haddock served on the Obama for America National Finance Committee and was a "bundler" for president during his 2008 run for the office, helping raise more than $200,000. He was viewed by the memo's author Jessica Clark, the Obama campaign's finance director in Florida, as a key figure for the Obama campaign in that critical state.
But his support for a second run was not yet confirmed, owed likely to disagreements with administration policy. According to the memo, he he stopped being "helpful" in 2009 and is currently being courted by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
In an attempt to keep him in the proverbial orbit, Clark suggested a bit of ego massaging. As the memo, whose authenticity was confirmed by Obama officials, read:
It is important to understand this meeting is NOT about educational student loans, though that information is below. Rather, Ed needs and wants an ongoing point of contact inside the White House to periodically give input. From his view, he is CEO of four different companies and has the ability to give business and economic ideas above and beyond the average check writer. But when he has attempted to do so—primarily on the education issue but not exclusively—there has been no way in. Indeed, he feels like the White House is hostile to outside help, especially if it comes in the form as help from business. YOU should engage Ed on his concerns and tell him you want an ongoing relationship that seeks to hear his ideas and concerns, even if in the end we don’t always agree.
The memo offers a rare window into what top aides clearly believe is a hurdle facing the president. While Obama's road to the White House in 2008 was paved with promise, his efforts to win a second term rest, in large part, on convincing the disappointed not to jump ship.
The memo also raises legal questions set forth by the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities -- though those boundaries are foggy. The White House, after all, entertains inquiries, complaints and requests from all sorts of constituents. How those communications are passed along matters less than whether a deliberate adjustment of policy was made in exchange for additional funds. In the case of Haddock, no such adjustment appears to have been made.
"The legal issue beyond the optical point isn't any different," said a senior administration official. "Whether the complaint comes via the campaign, either indirectly or directly ... we are not going to discriminate against him because he supported the president. It would be nuts."
As for those optics, the White House declined to provide an on-the-record statement. Other Obama officials have noted, however, that tending to the main funders of the campaign is a priority.
"I don't think we have been particularly attentive to the so-called care and feeding of donors," David Axelrod, Obama's former senior adviser, told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday. "It wasn't a lack of appreciation for supporters…I think it was largely a function of the fact that the president and everybody around him was absorbed in dealing with some fairly significant challenges."
But while the courting of Haddock can be viewed as, simply, a basic political activity, it also underscores what good government advocates see as a dangerous confluence of campaigns and governance. With elections growing increasingly expensive, donors with deep pockets are granted more input than average citizens.
"It is an inappropriate memo," said Fred Wertheimer, the Founder and President of the group Democracy 21. "And as we head into the campaign season and the political money raising season the Obama campaign should be extra careful about creating the potential impression that access is being provided for campaign contributions and fund raising."
Indeed, on Sunday night, the New York Times reported that several weeks before announcing his reelection campaign, the president brought two-dozen Wall Street executives, "many of them longtime donors," to the White House for their thoughts on the economic recovery.
Haddock may be lesser known than the Wall Street crowd but he has been a fairly steady, big time donor. From 1994 to 2010, he and his wife gave more than $435,000 to political candidates and institutions as well as campaign committees. Only $12,653 of that went to Republicans, according to a review of campaign finance records.
The Full Sail University CEO did not return a request for comment. But it appears that, so far at least, his donations have not had their desired effect. According to the memo, Haddock remains disappointed with the administration’s recent rule-making policy -- which provides stricter guidance and punishments for for-profit colleges that allow students to take on too much debt -- as well as legislation that eliminated government subsidized third-party student loans. Despite having met with Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Education Secretary Arne Duncan in addition to speaking with campaign manager Jim Messina during a swing through Chicago (the campaign headquarters), he also felt that he was being left, figuratively, at the White House gates. As the memo reads:
Even greater than Ed’s policy concerns is his personal feelings of being ignored and shut out of the process. Ed is not unreasonable and realizes that many people had a hand in making these policy decisions and does not claim that his voice should be heard above the rest. He does, however, feel that he has a perspective on this issue that is unique and feels as though he did not have a venue in which to share his input.
That a big time bundler is upset both with the access he's received and the policies produced from the administration he supported is, in a roundabout way, a plus for the White House on the ethics front. It suggests that the president and his team are desensitized to donor pressure, unwilling to let them get before policy. But elections come with their own set of pressures, chief among them a challenge to that type of donor-pressure restraint.
"That should not lead to campaign officials basically urging the White House and administration that they need to provide more access to this individual since he is a big fundraiser," said Wertheimer. "Obama campaign officials should not be pushing Obama administration officials to open the door to more access for this individual as we head into a huge fundraising season."