The President made a point of transparency and capped donations in 2009 but critics say 2013 is dominated by the dollar
When Barack Obama became president, in 2009, he kept his promise to shake up Washington by imposing a $50,000 cap on all donations to his inaugural fund, declining any financial gifts from corporations or trade unions and releasing full details of all the individuals who had contributed.
What a lot has changed in four years. As Obama prepares to revel in his second inauguration, on Monday, there is no ceiling on what an individual can give, corporations and lobby groups are very welcome and the presidential inaugural committee has been going on a fundraising binge as though there was no tomorrow.
On surface appearance, the inauguration is a sober and scaled-down affair compared with 2009. The number of Inaugural Balls on Monday night has been slashed from 10 to two – a Commander-in-Chief Ball and an Inaugural Ball. But don’t be fooled by the outward semblance of austerity. In fact, says the government transparency watchdog, the Sunlight Foundation, this year’s inauguration has been turned into an orgy of cash generation.
“Here’s a guy who four years ago was Mr Transparency, vowing to change the way business was done in Washington, and now it all looks very much as though its business as usual once again. That’s puzzling,” said the foundation’s Kathy Kiely.
Take the web page that the presidential inaugural committee posted a few months ago, called “Help America celebrate”. It invites individuals to become a “Washington premium partner”. As part of the package the donor – billed as an “institution” – is offered 16 tickets to various official events, including four to the inaugural ball. The price tag: $1m.
For $500,000 an institution can opt for the John Adams package, which comes with eight tickets. The most expensive package for an individual donor – as opposed to corporate – is $250,000.
Not only is Obama inviting such huge sums from individuals and corporations alike, he has also refused to disclose details on the sums given by donors and has only belatedly agreed to release their names.
For transparency campaigners like the Sunlight Foundation, Obama’s aggressive pursuit of cash takes some of the shine off a great celebration of the peaceful democratic transfer of power from president to president. “Obama’s re-election campaign slogan was ‘Forward’, but he’s taking us a step backward,” Kiely said.
Aside from Obama’s own fundraising efforts, Washington is awash – as it always is at inauguration time – with balls and dinners organized by lobbies and interest groups keen to gain direct access to Congress members and administration figures. The Sunlight Foundation has counted more than 100 hot-ticket events this weekend.
They include a ball thrown by the Creative Coalition – an umbrella for America’s most powerful entertainment companies that lobbied heavily for the Stop Online Piracy Bill, SOPA, that would have penalised online copyright breaches. A separate ball has been bank-rolled by Google, which vigoriously opposed SOPA.
Obama’s enthusiastic embrace of the chequebook raises the question of what he intends to do with the money raised, should it exceed the cost of the inauguration. Bill Clinton used the surplus funds from his second inauguration in 1997 to provide seed capital for his presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas.
It is possible that Obama is thinking along similar lines, amid recent speculation that he is considering setting up a presidential library, after he stands down in 2017, in his home town of Chicago. Another theory is that he will use any left-over cash to fund his new online campaign network, Organizing for Action, which has formed out of the structure of his re-election campaign.
Should that be the case, it is possible we will never find out about it. The presidential inaugural committee is under no obligation to reveal what it does with the money it raises, while Organizing for Action has been set up as a 501(c)4 social welfare entity that does not have to disclose its donors.
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