The last twenty-four hours have been rather remarkable for those interested in politics and media. Journalists often speak of the need to impose accountability on public officials, and to “speak truth to power,” especially when it comes to corruption and favoritism. The New York Times dropped a bombshell into their laps two days ago in reporting that Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, now converted to a “social welfare” group, had openly courted large-scale donors by promising to sell them quarterly access to President Obama in exchange for $500,000 or more in donations, either personal or bundled. NBC’s Chuck Todd reported on it the next morning, saying that “This just looks bad,” and that it was “the definition of how you define selling access.”
Obviously, this is exactly the kind of corruption and cronyism that the media is supposed to expose, and give the NYT and Chuck Todd credit for jumping all over it. How about the rest of the media? So far, they’ve said “meh” to power, or at least to Obama and his campaign organization. While conservative-leaning outlets like Fox, Washington Times, and Washington Examiner have covered the story, a search of news stories mostly shows other outlets repeating Jay Carney’s rather strained, non-specific denials without much further comment. Politico reported that the offer was part of a “preliminary” strategy, and the Washington Post just carried an AP report with a mostly non-denial denial from OFA. The effort in the media seems more aimed at avoiding uncomfortable questions about power than speaking truth to it.
In my column for The Week, I put the offer into a different kind of perspective:
The outright sale of seats for meetings at the White House is something very new, however, and amounts to a form of simony at the Church of Hope and Change.
It’s especially egregious considering the context of other presidential advisory boards. Obama launched the Simpson-Bowles commission (officially the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) and then apparently only met with them once to discuss their deficit-cutting efforts. Obama also formed a “Jobs Council” in early 2011 to defend himself against criticism for having too few advisers with real-world business experience and losing focus on the economy. In the two years of the council’s existence, it officially met a total of four times, only one of which was with Obama, and hadn’t held an official meeting in the year previous to its expiration at the end of January 2013.
Big donors to OFA, however, will get much more attention. Instead of a cursory single briefing on piddling issues like the explosion of national debt and the dearth of job creation in the Obama recovery, OFA donors get quarterly sessions with the president to discuss … “social welfare.” Forget what this says about integrity in governance; what does it say about the priorities of the president?
It also says something about campaign finance reforms over the past four decades, a point I make in the conclusion. Too bad the media seems uninterested in anything about this story, because it means a lost opportunity to not just speak truth to power but also to put us back on the right path to reform.
Meanwhile, Breitbart’s Michael Patrick Leahy thinks that the fundraising scheme should be challenged in court:
The Obama team’s brazen attempt to convert the assets of its political campaign into assets to promote the President’s political agenda and the electoral fortunes of his Democratic allies is unprecedented in American political history. It is clearly a violation of the intent of current federal election laws.
The Obama team is betting that they’ve cleverly discovered a loophole, one that Republicans will fail to challenge legally. Even if the legality of this unprecedented and highly political attempt to circumvent the intent of federal election law is challenged, Obama’s team is further betting that their attorneys will argue their case successfully before regulators and judges. To date, the Obama tactic has caught Republicans flat footed.
Not only is the conversion of questionable legality, it also is in absolute contradiction to everything President Obama has ever said about the negative influence of large financial donations on the political process in America. In 2010, for instance, when the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision paved the way for SuperPACs that could accept unlimited donations from individuals and corporations alike, President Obama was one of the Court’s harshest critics. But the President’s opinion on the evils of unlimited donations to political organizations–especially those that pretend to be “issues advocacy” groups–appears to have changed in the three years since that decision.
Don’t expect the traditional media to ask too many questions about that, either.