Obama’s Golden Rule and the Myth of the President’s Onetime “Small-Donor Base“
Deletion of essential context and information is one of the many ways in which American corporate news media works to take the risk of American democracy for the rich and powerful. Take a recent front-page Chicago Tribune story titled “Obama Looks to Lock Up Big Money.” Tribune Washington Bureau correspondents Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold note that President Barack Obama’s re-election team has “launched an invigorated effort to draw money from wealthy donors,” thereby “buttressing the campaign against a potential decline in contributions from the everyday supporters who helped fuel a massive fundraising haul in 2008.” The increased emphasis on “deep pocketed backers comes, Hamburger and Gold add, “amid uncertainty about whether Obama will be able to re-energize the small money donors who made up about half of the $745 million he raised in the 2008 campaign.” The page 2 continuation headline of their article reads “Big Money Donors on Obama Radar.’ 1
It’s a nasty, plutocratic story. Team Obama 2012 has devised a new money-tapping entity called the Obama Victory Fund (OVF), a joint venture of Obama’s Chicago-based re-election campaign and the Democratic (party’s) National Committee (DNC). One becomes a “Presidential Partner” by giving $75,000 (the maximum that “contributors” are allowed to give to the DNC for the 2012 election cycle) of one’s spare change to the OVF. Federal election law prohibits individuals from giving (investing) more than $5000 to (in) a candidate in an election cycle. But they can give (invest) up to fifteen times that amount to (in) joint candidate and party committees.
Presidential Partners are “one of three major [Obama fundraising] programs” that offer wealthy political investors “special access to campaign officials in exchange for [large] contributions.”
Along with events like a recent $15,000-a-plate dinner Obama held with Wall Street executives at an elite Manhattan restaurant, these sorts of programs threaten, Hamburger and Gold note, to “undercut the image [Obama] has tried to craft.” The reporters do not say what that image is, but they are clearly referring to the branding of as a friend and champion of the poor and working people in their struggle with the wealthy “special interests” the corporate Democrats seek to identify with the Republican Party when talking to ordinary citizens.
Non-Change Comes from the Top Down
This is a fine and useful report as far as it goes, which is not very far. There are two very big and overlapping things missing from the Tribune’s account. The first critical thing not addressed is the rather important (one would think) question of why the Obama campaign anticipates a significant fall in small donations. The answer to that question (and no small part of the answer to the related question of why Democrats turned out so poorly in the mid-term congressional elections of November 2010) is that president Obama has coldly contradicted his own progressive-sounding and people-friendly campaign rhetoric about change coming from the bottom up by acting in accord with the top-down dictates of the nation’s de facto dictatorship of money. With its monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic too-big (too powerful)-to-fail financial institutions that paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight, its undermining of serious global carbon emission reductions at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies (remember Obama’s immediately abandoned campaign pledge to advance the union re-legalizing Employee Free Choice Act?) and other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other sides of the coins of promises kept to its corporate sponsors), the “Obama, Inc.” administration has epitomized the cynical essence of the other Golden Rule: “those who have the gold rule.” As William Greider noted in the spring of 2009, “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.” The “right people” are those who already have the most money.
It’s another lesson in an old tutorial. Every four years, the radical historian Laurence Shoup noted in early 2008, many Americans invest their hopes in an electoral process that does not deserve their trust. These voters hope that a savior can be installed in the White House – someone who will raise wages, roll back war and militarism, provide universal and adequate health care, rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, produce high-paying jobs, fix the environmental crisis, reduce inequality, guarantee economic security, and generally make daily life more livable. But the dreams are regularly drowned in the icy waters of historical and political “reality.” In the actuality of American politics and policy, the officially “elect-able” candidates are vetted in advance by what Shoup called “the hidden primary of the ruling class.” By prior Establishment selection, all of the “viable” presidential contenders are closely tied to corporate and military-imperial power in numerous and interrelated ways. They run safely within the narrow ideological and policy parameters set by those who rule behind the scenes to make sure that the rich and privileged continue to be the leading beneficiaries of the American system. In its presidential as in its other elections, U.S. “democracy” is “at best” a “guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population projects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process. It is an illusion,” Shoup claimed– correctly in my opinion – “that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate.”3
“What’s the Dollar Value of a Starry Eyed Idealist?”
Which brings us to the second thing missing from the Tribune report: Obama was a gold-plated deep pockets candidate in the last presidential election cycle. Big money donors have always been “on Obama’s radar” throughout his political career. Obama’s presidential record matches the record-setting corporate campaign funding he quite eagerly sought and received during the presidential raceand during his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2004. As is well known, big money campaign sponsors are not in the business of handing over the White House to progressive enemies of American wealth, empire and inequality, incorporated. Obama’s strong connection to wealthy patrons like Goldman Sachs, General Dynamics, and Exelon and a host of politically connected corporate lobbyists was predicated on his well-heeled backers’ calculation that the Obama phenomenon offered no significant popular or democratic threat to elite financial interests and that its central figure was someone with whom concentrated wealth could productively work in securing its interests and advancing its agenda. As Ken Silverstein noted in an important 2006 Harper’s article that told the story of Obama’s early vetting by the money and politics class in 2003 and 2004, early in his national political career Obama was found to be a safe candidate for concentrated wealth. “On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein reported, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’” 6
“A Parallel Public Financing System”: The Myth of Obama’s Small Donor Base
But the biggest problem for Hamburger and Gold’s article is that the notion of Obama as a small-money candidate of “grassroots” donors in 2008 is flatly false. As the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) showed in a late November 2008 study, Obama's base of small donors was almost exactly the same percent as the openly plutocratic George W. Bush's in 2004 – Obama had 24 percent and Bus had 25 percent. "The myth is that money from small donors dominated Barack Obama's finances," said CFI director Michael Malbin, acknowledging that his organization also was initially fooled. Compiling total contributions from the same individuals, the CFI the Institute discovered that rather than the 50 percent plus commonly reported during the campaign (and reported to this day by Hamburger and Gold), just a quarter of Obama’s total take came from people whose total donations added up to less than $200. The critical word here is “total.” As the veteran national and foreign affairs correspondent and Los Angeles Times editorial board member Andrew Malcom noted on the Los Angeles Times’ blog in late November of 2008:
“It comes down to which definition of ‘small donor’ you accept: Someone who donated to the Obama campaign by scraping together $199, period. Or someone who donated $199 to the Obama campaign several times, perhaps totaling close to the $4,600 legal limit for the primary and general elections. In aggregate, that would vault him/her out of the small donor category that was so useful to the political campaign's public relations campaign portraying the donor base as about two times as broad as it really was. The reported numbers show that Obama actually received 80% more money from large donors (those giving $1,000 or more total) than from small donors. Through the Democratic National Convention, the Institute estimates, Obama received $119 million from genuine small donors, an impressive sum, to be sure. But not as impressive as the $210 million he'd raised by then from bundlers and large donors....Now, we'll see how broad-based news coverage of this real reality is.”7
More than three years later, the Los Angeles Times’ sister paper the Chicago Tribune still hasn’t heard the news on candidate Obama’s plutocratic reality in 2008.
The myth of Obama’s small donor base was disseminated in no small part by the Obama campaign itself, seeking to justify its decision to blow through the spending limits required by the presidential public financing system. The “small donor” story was useful for a richly plutocratic campaign that coldly broke its promise to use the public financing system if its Republican opponent was willing to honor its spending limits. John McCain would have gone with the public system.By early April of 2008, Washington Post reporters Mathew Mosk and Alec McGillis noted, Obama’s marketers had come up with an ingenious solution to the stark conflict between rhetoric and reality in their candidate’s public financing position. Obama claimed that his presidential campaign had created “a parallel public financing system” based on what that the Post called “a wave of modest donations from homemakers and high school teachers.”
“Small givers,” Obama said at an April 2008 fundraiser, “will have as much access and influence over the course and direction of our campaign as has traditionally been reserved for the wealthy and powerful.” This promise struck Mosk and McGillis as difficult to fulfill. They noted that people “with wealth and power” had “played a critical role in creating Obama’s record-breaking fundraising machine, and their generosity earned them a prominent voice in shaping his campaign.” Of particular interest, they found that Obama had received support from “seventy-nine ‘bundlers,’ five of them millionaires,” who had “tapped their personal networks to raise at least $200,000 each. They have helped the campaign recruit more than 27,000 to write checks for $2,300, the maximum allowed.”9
Such are the absurdities of the United States’ fake-democratic political culture, the essence of which was once lucidly captured by the formerly left Christopher Hitchens as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.”
Paul Street’s latest book (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) is Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, May 2011).
1 Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold, “Obama Looks to Lock Up Big Money,” Chicago Tribune, June 25, 2011, Section 1, 1-2.
2 Hamburger and Gold, “Obama Looks to Lock Up Big Money.”
3 Laurence H. Shoup, “The Presidential Election 2008,” Z Magazine (February 2008), p. 31.
4 For details and sources, see Paul Street , Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008), xxii-xiv, 12-22.
5 “Obama Breaks Fundraising Records,” Voice of America News, October 21, 2009, at www1.voanews.com/english/news/
6 Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006).
7 Andrew Malcom, “Obama’s Small Donor Base Image is a Myth, New Study Reveals,,” LA Times, November 28, 2008) http://latimesblogs.latimes.
8 For details and sources, Street, Barack Obama and the Future, 19-22.
9 Matthew Mosk and Alex McGillis, “Big Donors Among Obama’s Grass Roots,” Washington Post, 11 April, 2008, p. A1.