Jacob Sullum

Here is a quick summary of President Obama's recent debate with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber of Commerce: The Democrats' economic policies have failed.

Obama: Look out! Foreigners!

Obama's attempt to discredit his opponents by linking them to sinister outsiders reminds us that neither major party has a monopoly on xenophobia. To some extent, crying "foreigner" reflects the president's desperation in the face of the Democrats' looming midterm losses. But it is also part of a long-term rhetorical strategy that belies his image as a sophisticated cosmopolitan eager to promote international cooperation and restore America's reputation.

Back in January, during his State of the Union Address, Obama claimed Citizens United v. FEC, a decision in which the Supreme Court overturned restrictions on political speech by corporations, would allow "foreign entities" to "spend without limit in our elections." That was one of the comments that may have prompted Justice Samuel Alito, sitting in the audience, to shake his head and mouth the words "not true," since the ruling left undisturbed the 1966 ban on election-related spending by "foreign nationals."

In the same vein, Obama last week repeatedly insinuated that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is using "foreign money" to fund ads criticizing Democrats.

"Just this week," he said in a speech supporting the re-election of Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, "we learned that one of the largest groups paying for these ads regularly takes in money from foreign corporations. So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections, and they won't tell you where the money for their ads comes from. ... This is a threat to our democracy." He said much the same thing during a campaign stop in Chicago.

Obama was referring to a ThinkProgress blog post reporting that the Chamber of Commerce receives revenue from affiliates in other countries. But as The New York Times noted, so do many other American organizations that are active in domestic political debates, "from liberal ones like the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club to conservative groups like the National Rifle Association."

All these groups are legally required to keep such funds segregated from money they use to pay for political advocacy. The White House admitted it had no evidence that the Chamber of Commerce, which says "foreign money" represents 0.05 percent of its $200 million budget, has broken this rule.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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