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For Obama, The SuperPAC Rubber Has Met The Road

President Obama telegraphed his campaign's reversal on superPAC funding during an interview aired Monday with NBC's Matt Lauer.
NBC "Today" show screenshot
President Obama telegraphed his campaign's reversal on superPAC funding during an interview aired Monday with NBC's Matt Lauer.

The late conservative writer William F. Buckley Jr. once said that "idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive."

That seems to be the political calculation being made by President Obama and his campaign team when it comes to opposing superPACs.

Team Obama reversed course late Monday when campaign manager Jim Messina urged donors to help pro-Obama superPACs raise supermoney, and said administration officials will be free to help with the fundraising.

The math was an apparent wake-up call for Democrats: Priorities USA Action, which was founded by two former Obama aides, pulled in just $4.4 million last year, while the superPAC supporting GOP front-runner Mitt Romney raked in nearly $18 million.

More broadly, new fundraising reports show pro-Republican superPACs have pulled well ahead of those supporting Democrats. The biggest GOP groups raised more than $50 million last year, while Democratic groups — including Priorities USA — garnered less than $20 million.

Obama's campaign had formerly kept Priorities USA at a distance as the president himself railed against the superPAC establishment.

The climb down from that perch has been a steep one.

Days after the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision that abolished some limits on campaign donations, Obama said in his State of the Union address — as the black-robed justices looked on — that the ruling had "reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections."

Six months later, as Obama pushed a bill that would have barred foreign funding in federal elections and firmed up disclosure requirements, he was even more explicit in his opposition, saying the court's ruling allowed the purchase of millions of dollars in political TV ads with no disclosure on who was paying for them.

"Now, imagine the power this will give special interests over politicians," he said. "Corporate lobbyists will be able to tell members of Congress if they don't vote the right way, they will face an onslaught of negative ads in their next campaign. And all too often, no one will actually know who's really behind those ads."

But Monday's missive from Messina said Democrats couldn't afford to "unilaterally disarm" as the GOP nominee enjoyed the fruits of unlimited spending. "Therefore," he wrote, "the campaign has decided to do what we can, consistent with the law, to support Priorities USA in its effort to counter the weight of the GOP Super PAC."

Obama himself laid the groundwork for the reversal during an interview with NBC's Matt Lauer that aired earlier Monday.

"If you ask me, would I love to take some of the big money out of politics, I would," the president said. "Unfortunately, right now, partly because of Supreme Court rulings and a bunch of decisions out there, it is very hard to be able to get your message out without having some resources."

In the end, there was essentially zero political upside to standing on principle and not trying to maximize campaign cash, says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"It was inevitable," he says. "As we begin to see the Romney general election take shape and the willingness of donors to contribute in denominations of millions of dollars to that effort, you can't ignore that reality.

"I would say this is all about pragmatism and political expediency."

While the superPAC about-face opens the president up to accusations of hypocrisy, it's more likely to hurt him with Democrats than Republicans, says Nathaniel Persily, a Columbia University professor who specializes in election law.

"It's not that [Obama] will pay a price from his Republican rivals, but that the good-government groups that otherwise support Obama might be uncomfortable with this."

Updated 3:15 p.m.

On Tuesday's All Things Considered, NPR's Peter Overby also notes that good-government groups have found "a bright spot" in the Obama campaign's statement that the president would back a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United.

Overby also raises another question: "Will wealthy donors deliver" for Obama?

"There is this self-loathing relationship that Democrats seem to have with outside independent activity that has got to have an impact ... on donor attitudes," says Steven Law, head of American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, organizations founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove. The groups spent millions last year attacking Obama's policies.

As Overby notes, "it's those attitudes that the Obama campaign hopes to reverse, just nine months out from the election."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.