WASHINGTON (AP) — For years, President Barack Obama railed against the surge of unlimited spending flowing into American political campaigns, arguing that average voters were being shut out of a secretive system that lets special interests bankroll elections.
Now, as Obama enthusiastically raises money for Democratic super PACs, he's embracing some of the same secretive elements of that system, drawing charges of hypocrisy from good-governance advocates who say the public deserves to know what Obama's saying and to whom he's saying it when donors pay for a few minutes with the president.
After initially shunning super PACs, Obama in 2012 allowed his top officials to help raise money for the super PAC working to re-elect him, but his campaign promised to still "lead the way" on campaign transparency and reform. Obama took another major step toward embracing super PACs this year by agreeing to appear personally at fundraisers for Democratic super PACs. He argued that Democrats can't afford to play by different rules than Republican groups whose donors were flooding the super PAC zone.
Campaign finance reform advocates hoped that even if Obama was helping super PACs, he'd seek to make the process as transparent as possible. After all, Obama has backed legislation known as the DISCLOSE Act that would clamp down on secretive contributions and has said he's open to amending the Constitution to stem campaign spending.
"I can't think of anything more devastating to the public interest," Obama said in 2010 after the Supreme Court cleared the way for unlimited political contributions. "The last thing we need to do is hand more influence to the lobbyists in Washington, or more power to the special interests to tip the outcome of elections."
When Obama attended a fundraiser Wednesday in California for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a party committee that must adhere to strict contribution limits, officials released the number of guests attending and how much they paid. Reporters were allowed in as Obama spoke to donors gathered in an opulent neighborhood in Los Altos Hills.
Just hours earlier, Obama was at a nearby hotel for a fundraiser benefiting the House Majority PAC, a super PAC that works to elect Democrats. The news media were kept out and White House declined to release any details about who showed up and how much they had contributed, making it impossible for the public to know what agenda they might be pushing during their few minutes of face time with Obama.
"I would only ask that you judge us by our record and that of our predecessors," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. "Without a doubt, I think we've done more to achieve the president's commitment to transparency than any other previous administration."
But Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the good-government group the Sunlight Foundation, said shrouding Obama's super PAC fundraisers in secrecy only raises questions about what he or the super PAC is trying to hide.
"This is just a barometer of the bad conscience that's involved in doing this sort of fundraising," Kiely said. "If I speak to people who are richer and can write bigger checks, suddenly that changes the rights of the American public to know what I'm saying?"
She added, "It feels un-American."
House Majority PAC, not the White House, made the decision to deem the event "private" and prevent reporters from hearing Obama's remarks, said Matt Thornton, the super PAC's spokesman. The super PAC also maintains that while it invited donors who have given major sums in the past, the event wasn't actually a fundraiser because there was no set ticket price and Obama didn't directly solicit donations.
As a super PAC, House Majority PAC must eventually disclose its donors to the Federal Elections Commission on a periodic basis, although voters will never know which of those donors attended fundraisers with the president.
But the group's sister super PAC in the Senate, Majority PAC, also has a nonprofit arm that can take unlimited donations without disclosing any information about its donors. Obama headlined a $25,000-a-person fundraiser for the group Tuesday in Seattle. A Majority PAC spokesman did not respond to questions about whether any of those funds benefited its nonprofit wing, Patriot Majority.
"I don't have a problem with super PACs. What people have an issue with is hypocrisy," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in an interview. Now that Obama has discovered he needs unlimited funding from super PACs, "he rejects transparency, he locks the press out and he goes and raises the money anyway."