President Obama has set out on a dangerous and unprecedented path as he begins his second term in office.
The president and his political allies are creating a section 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization, Organizing for Action. It will be governed and run by some of the president's closest political operatives.
The new organization has the stated purpose of advocating the president's agenda and will accept unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals to pursue this goal. As far as I know, this is the first time a president has outsourced an important responsibility of his presidency to a private sector organization that is financed by unlimited private funds and that is, in effect, operating as an arm of the presidency.
In taking this step, the president has opted for "the ends justify the means" approach that is fraught with danger. It opens the door to opportunities for government corruption, by allowing corporations and individuals to provide unlimited amounts of money to directly benefit the president's interests and potentially to receive government benefits and favors in return.
This action by the president also represents the last stage in an apparent remarkable transformation in President Obama's views regarding the role of corporate money in the American political process.
Following the Supreme Court's disastrous decision in the Citizen United case that overturned the longstanding federal prohibition on corporate spending to influence federal campaigns, President Obama aptly stated:
"With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans."
In making this statement, President Obama clearly recognized the dangers of allowing corporations to use their funds to buy influence over government decisions and federal officeholders.
But now with his decision to allow corporations to fund the new organization that will operate as an arm of his presidency, President Obama "has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money" to directly benefit his presidency. And the president has provided a "major" opportunity for "big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and other powerful interests" to provide direct financial resources to support the president's interests.
Indeed, according to an article in Politico, the president "may personally fundraise on behalf of the group." Thus, the president may personally solicit huge contributions from corporations and wealthy donors for Organizing for Action, a step that would threaten to inject the president personally and directly into the potential exchange of large donations for governmental favors or the appearance of such potential exchanges.
This would take President Obama about as far away as he could possibly get from the goal he set in 2008 to "change the way business is done in Washington."
In late 2008 and 2009, the president had previously recognized the danger of taking corporate money when his Inauguration Committee refused to accept funds from corporations to pay for his first Inaugural.
And the president also initially recognized the same dangers when a policy was established by the DNC to prohibit corporations from paying for the costs of the 2012 Democratic nominating convention. That policy was later abandoned, however, and the Democratic Party ended up accepting $20 million from corporations to pay for the 2012 nominating convention including gifts from Bank of America and Wells Fargo and Company, according to Bloomberg.
Then, following his 2012 election, President Obama reversed the position he had taken for his first Inaugural and allowed corporations to contribute to finance his second Inaugural events. What the president thought was wrong in 2008, all of the sudden became acceptable in 2012, at a point where he would never have to face voters again.
As a result, among other corporations, ExxonMobil, which certainly qualifies as "big oil," contributed $250,000 to the Obama Inauguration Committee, according to The Hill, a contribution that directly benefited the president's interests.
Corporations have a responsibility to their shareholders to invest their resources to advance their corporate economic interests. They are not in the business of making eleemosynary contributions, but rather seek economic returns on their investments.
History is quite clear that unlimited funds provided to benefit an officeholder or candidate create the opportunity for corruption or the appearance of corruption. And that is the opportunity being created with the establishment of Organizing for Action by the president and his political allies.
President Obama would no doubt say that his policies are not going to be influenced by any contribution made by a corporation to Organizing for Action. But that is the unacceptable defense that almost every officeholder gives and it is not sufficient to protect citizens against large amounts of corporate money buying influence over government decisions.
And while Organizing for Action says it will voluntarily disclose its donors, we are left to trust the organization that it will do so fully, accurately and on a timely basis. In any event, disclosure, while very important, does not prevent influence buying. There is no reason to believe that the $100 million that Sheldon Adelson reportedly gave to influence the 2012 national elections, much of which was disclosed, has not created the potential for buying influence over government policies with the political party and winners he supported, or at least created the potential appearance of such influence buying.
Organizing for Action also says it won't take money from PACs and lobbyists. This is an irrelevant obfuscation. It doesn't matter if you are not taking money from PACs or lobbyists when you are taking money from the corporations they represent.
President Obama should shut down Organizing for Action now before it creates the appearance of influence buying and/or scandals for the second term of his administration.
As long as Organizing for Action exists, however, Democracy 21 will closely monitor its activities to determine whether the "issue ads" it says it plans to run, as well as its other activities, comply with its proposed tax-exempt status as a section 501(c)(4) "social welfare" organization.