By Justin Sink - 03/13/13 11:41 PM EDT
President Obama on Wednesday admitted that Organizing for Action, the nonprofit group born from his reelection campaign, had been met with "some suspicion" in Washington, but insisted he sees the group as a way to combat the pivotal "mistake" of his first term — allowing the populist enthusiasm behind his policy objectives to fade amid tough negotiations with Congress.
The nonprofit group, founded two months ago by top aides and strategists to the president, has come under fire from independent watchdog groups that argue the organization was essentially selling access to the White House. Donors paid $50,000 to attend the two-day kickoff event, and the New York Times reported last month that those who gave a half-million dollars would be invited to quarterly briefings with the president. OFA and White House officials have subsequently denied a "set price" to meet with the president, and the organization has emphasized that it could not promise access.
Obama acknowledged to the roughly 75 attendees gathered Wednesday that "being friends with a politician is like perpetually having a kid in college, 'cause you're writing checks all the time and it doesn't seem like the kid ever graduates."
But he also said he prided himself on feeling no obligation to the individual interests of the campaign donors who underwrote his two successful bids for the White House.
"One of the things I'm proudest of during the course of two campaigns is the people who got involved didn't ask me for stuff, except to be true to my vision and true to our agenda," Obama said.
Instead, the president argued that OFA represented a chance to correct one of the biggest tactical errors of his first term.
"What we don't want to do is repeat the mistake that I believe in 2008 we made, where some of that energy dissipated and we were only playing an inside game," Obama said. "I'm sitting in a room with a bunch of folks negotiating all the time, but those voices are no longer heard."
The president argued that by creating the organization, he could demonstrate to members of Congress that they would have financial and volunteer support if they were willing to take tough votes to help forward his second-term policy agenda.
"If you have a senator of a congressman in a swing district who is prepared to take a tough vote… I want to make sure they feel supported and they know there are constituencies of theirs that agree with them, even if they may be getting a lot of pushback in that district," Obama said. "If we move aggressively on an issue like climate change, that's not an easy issue for a lot of folks because the benefits may be out in the future, and I want to make sure a congressman, a senator feels as if they have the information and the grassroots network that will support them."
Obama framed that effort within his recent outreach efforts to rank-and-file congressional members in the hope of striking deals on a budget, immigration reform, and gun controls. On Wednesday, Obama met with House Republicans on Capitol Hill; the president has also invited Republican senators to dinner, and plans to meet with Senate Republicans and House Democrats on Thursday.
"Over the last several weeks, the press here in Washington has been reporting on Obama's charm offensive," Obama said. "Well the truth of the matter is all I've been doing is calling up folks and trying to see whether we can break thru some of the gobbledygook of our politics here."
But in some of his most candid comments on the push toward striking a deal, Obama acknowledged that there were tough hurdles in the place of any deal. Describing the apparent paradox between members' reluctance to break with leadership — and leadership's reluctance to negotiate privately — Obama said he hoped OFA could help encourage members to break from party orthodoxy.
"At this juncture, one of the things I believe is we've got to get members of Congress involved in these discussions, not just leadership, because I think a lot of them feel as if they don't have the opportunity to break out of some of this partisan gridlock," Obama said. "And ironically, I actually think some of the leadership want their membership to create a permission structure."
Still, the president's assurances that the group was intended as inclusive and pragmatic are unlikely to do much to reassure watchdog groups that say OFA sets a dangerous new precedent. Earlier Wednesday, Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center sent the White House a letter warning that the group could violate rules governing gifts to executive branch officials.
"Organizing for Action is an unprecedented entity that creates new opportunities for big donors and bundlers of large amounts to obtain corrupting influence over executive branch policies and decisions," said Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer. "OFA is also a terrible precedent for the future that if left in place will spread to members of Congress who will use similar non-profit groups to create new opportunities for big donors and special interests to exercise corrupting influence over congressional decisions."