President Obama speaks at a fundraising event in Atlanta. (David Goldman / AP Photo )
Brother, can you spare $3?
It hasn’t quite come to that, the commander-in-chief, sunken-eyed, raggedly clothed, tin cup in hand, begging for political pocket change. But the latest solicitation from President Obama is arresting for its subject line — “I will be outspent” — and what it says about the titanic financial forces unleashed in good part by his 2008 campaign.
It was, after all, Obama who reversed a promise and opted out of the public finance system, which was instituted as part of the post-Watergate reform movement. In doing so, the Democrat became the first major-party candidate to turn down a check from Washington and, more significantly, slip the bonds of the government’s spending limits. There was no looking back. The decision, which had scarcely any political down side, allowed Obama to raise and spend nearly $750 million, an unprecedented sum, and run the kind of cover-every-base campaign — TV blitz! Ground game! Social media! Red State! Blue State! Purple State! -- that most candidates can only dream of.
[For the record, June 26, 5:45 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said that Barack Obama, in rejecting public presidential campaign funding in 2008, had avoided state-by-state spending limits in the fall campaign. The state-by-state limits apply only in the primary season.]
By contrast, Obama’s Republican rival, John McCain, stayed within the parameters of the system and was limited to a paltry $84 million for the general election. While it is hardly the reason the Arizona senator lost, what Sophie Tucker once said certainly applies: In politics, as in life, it is better to be rich than poor. (Even relatively speaking.)
With that precedent, there was never any question that Obama’s rival, whomever it turned out to be, would forsake the meager $92 million in public financing the federal government proffered for this fall’s campaign, opting, like the president, to grab as much cash as possible.
Last month, with the GOP nominating fight settled, Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee out-raised Obama and the Democratic National Committee for the first time, $77 million to $61 million—that’s one month’s total -- leading to the president’s entreaty on Tuesday. “I will be,” he warned, “the first president in modern history to be outspent in his re-election campaign, if things continue as they have so far.”
Pitching to his supporters, the president requested $3 (or more) to fight back against an anticipated onslaught of $1 billion-plus in advertising “trashing me, you and everything we believe in.”
“We can be outspent and still win,” Obama emailed. “But we can't be outspent 10 to 1 and still win.”
Alarmism, of course, is the coin of the realm in the fundraising business; it hardly seems likely the incumbent will be outspent to that degree, notwithstanding the disappointment of some major Democratic donors and a bitter falling out with some of the president’s former friends and benefactors on Wall Street.
Obama strategists have said they expect to raise more than $750 million this time, counting once more on a flood of small-dollar donors to buttress those with weightier wallets. (The $1-billion figure floated by Republicans earlier this year was a figment of fevered imaginations; the fear thing runs both ways.) Romney’s fundraising goal is believed to be roughly $800 million, putting the two candidates in just about the same financial ballpark. The former Massachusetts governor does have one significant advantage, however: an array of outside groups that are poised to spend hundreds of millions on their own to defeat Obama, vastly outpacing their liberal counterparts.
That said, if Obama is defeated in November, it will be the state of the economy, not the size of his campaign treasury, that will most likely have sealed his fate.
In his emailed plea, Obama alluded to Romney’s Park City, Utah, getaway last weekend with Republican fat cats and others supporting his campaign. “I’ve got other responsibilities I’m attending to,” the president said.
But if fundraising for reelection is taking up more time than Obama prefers, he shoulders a fair share of the blame.
Matea Gold contributed to this report.