Organizing for Action (OFA), Barack Obama’s former campaign apparatus reincarnated as a nonprofit advocacy group, initiated a two-day “founders summit” on Wednesday at the St. Regis hotel, located two blocks from the White House. The group characterizes themselves as a grassroots organization, driven from the bottom up. “This is going to be absolutely local,” said OFA chairman and former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. “Members will decide what issues in their community they most care about.” OFA has come under criticism for effectively selling access to the president, who addressed OFA attendees at a dinner Wednesday–one that cost $50,000 per person to attend.
Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, a campaign finance reform group, explains the reality hiding behind OFA’s populist facade. “It is operating as an arm of the presidency and it’s funded by private money including large contributions and bundlers raising large amounts,” he reveals. “So this private funding arm tied to the president creates opportunities for donors to obtain corrupting influence over government policies and decisions. This is an unacceptable entity. It’s almost like outsourcing a portion of the presidency,” he added.
Jon Carson, a former White House aide who is now OFA’s executive director insists otherwise–in Orwellian fashion. “We are not a partisan organization,” he contends. “We are here to move this shared progressive agenda forward, and we will advocate for Democrats to move this agenda forward, we will advocate for Republicans.” Jim Messina gets a little closer to the truth. “For every lobbying group that puts a dollar on the air tearing down the president’s agenda, an OFA volunteer will mobilize around the country to counter that,” he promised.
The above statements are utterly disingenuous. Carson knows that the likelihood of any Republican supporting OFA’s the hard-left agenda is virtually nil. As for Messina, the idea that OFA is intent on preventing the president’s agenda from being torn down means the organization is marching in lockstep with an individual, not a political ideology. Since this president is known for taking two diametrically opposed positions on issues, such as his newly evolving support for gay marriage, or his amassing of $5 trillion in national debt after calling George W. Bush “irresponsible” and “unpatriotic for doing the same thing, one is left to wonder whether OFA will be equally “flexible.” If they are, talk of nonpartisanship is just that–talk.
Even the reliably leftist USA Today is skeptical regarding such claims. “OFA was created in January by Obama’s top campaign lieutenants,” the paper notes. “It looks for all the world like an extension of the White House. It is collecting money and pushing Obama’s agenda, two things that sound awfully political, while masquerading as a ‘social welfare’ organization under the tax code.”
It is not masquerading as a social welfare organization. It is an IRS-designated 501(c)4 social welfare organization, beyond the jurisdiction of Federal Election Commission statutes that limit campaign donations and require the disclosure of donor names. That such statutes apply to political groups reveals the rank hypocrisy that attends OFA, whose website reveals every one of its seven “social welfare” issues–jobs and the economy, taxes and the budget, health care, education, environment, energy and immigration–bear a striking resemblance to the major political issues currently dominating the national conversation.
Messina promises that OFA is committed to maintaining transparency. He has changed his mind about OFA’s original intention to accept money from corporations, federal lobbyists and foreign donors, and further insists that “every donor who gives $250 or more to this organization will be disclosed on the website with the exact amount they give on a quarterly basis.” In other words, skeptics will have to take Messina’s word that everything will be on the up and up. Perhaps it will be. But if that is the case, why wasn’t OFA organized as a political group instead of a nonprofit?
Some of Obama’s largest donors are reportedly unenthused about getting hit up again for cash so soon after the election. Many have opted not to attend the summit. Mel Heifetz, a Philadelphia real-estate investor and gay-rights activist, who donated $1 million to a super-PAC for the 2012, race explains. “I’m just not ready to start writing checks; it’s only 60 days since President Obama got sworn in,” he said.
Yet when the time came for Obama to speak, approximately 75 supporters packed themselves into a restaurant inside the hotel. Obama told them that OFA can play a powerful a role in shaping his second-term agenda. Yet he also addressed concerns expressed by Republicans and others that OFA was intent on helping Democrats capture the House in 2014. “I actually just want to govern, at least for a couple of years,” Obama contended. The president, who held a meeting with Republicans earlier in the day to address several issues, including entitlement reform, jobs, energy and leadership, expressed optimism that both parities could overcome the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington, D.C. “Members sometimes are scared about making the right decisions,” Obama said.
He reiterated his contention that Washington can’t be changed from inside, and said that OFA could make the difference in ensuring that the people who elected him have their voices heard when it comes to formulating policies that may be difficult to achieve. After his brief remarks (made without a teleprompter) were concluded, reporters were escorted out of the room while the president continued to mingle with the attendees.
J. Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, reiterated concerns about Obama’s relationship with OFA, insisting that it “not only raises policy concerns relating to the purchase of influence over the administration, but also may cross the line in terms of the federal law banning the soliciting of gifts by any member of the executive branch, including the president.”
OFA countered that they were on solid legal ground, contending that Obama can appear before any nonprofit group that is promoting social policy issues, a position taken by Messina in an op-ed in early March. “Whether you’re a volunteer or a donor, we can’t and we won’t guarantee access to any government officials,” Messina wrote. “But just as the president and administration officials deliver updates on the legislative process to Americans and organizations across the ideological spectrum, there may be occasions when members of Organizing for Action are included in those updates. These are not opportunities to lobby–they are briefings on the positions the president has taken and the status of seeing them through.”
Carson echoed that contention last night. “Our role, quite simply, is to change the balance of power by being an organization, a network of grassroots strength, that is going to stand up for that agenda,” he said.
That would be a “network of grassroots strength” intentionally set up to avoid FEC restrictions, run by Obama’s former reelection team that occasionally charges $50,000 a dinner for “incidental” access to the president. Sounds remarkably like a giant community organizing apparatus whose promise of transparency is undoubtedly as trustworthy as the president the group was instrumental in getting reelected.
Ironically, it behooves the same mainstream media that has carried this president’s water innumerable times to keep close tabs on OFA. Not for the noble sake of keeping the public informed, but for the ignoble ability to insure the continuity of their own access to the president. OFA has a technological infrastructure with access to Obama’s 2 million volunteers, 17 million email subscribers, 22 million Twitter followers and virtually every registered voter in the country. Used properly, it could make those mainstream media water-carriers largely irrelevant.
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