You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Obama Drops Out of Public Financing; Announces By Email/YouTube

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, June 19 2008

This morning, the Obama campaign sent out an email to its supporters urging them to watch an "important announcement" that "he wanted you to hear first." The news? As expected by many observers, Obama has decided to opt out of the presidential public financing system for the general election. Instead of taking approximately $85 million in public funds and agreeing to stop raising money and abide by that spending limit, he has chosen to rely on his gigantic donor base, which currently numbers 1.5 million individuals.

It's important to take note of how Obama is framing this decision. He says he's a supporter of "robust" public financing systems (and indeed this is true going back to his days in Illinois state politics), but that the current federal system is "broken." Not only that:
We face opponents who’ve become masters at gaming this broken system. John McCain’s campaign and the Republican National Committee are fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs. And we’ve already seen that he’s not going to stop the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups, who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations.
While there was some talk earlier in the race of Obama and McCain coming to some kind of agreement to rein in the 527s, it appears that's not happening. When Obama says, "I have asked my supporters to avoid that kind of unregulated activity and join us in building a new kind of politics – and you have," the subtext, "and my opponent won't." This is a direct slap at McCain's reputation as a campaign finance reformer, and it will be interesting to see how he responds.

It's clear that Obama could not be making this choice without the exponential potential of his online fundraising operation. But it remains to be seen whether he will be able to credibly claim that his campaign is a running on new form of public financing, i.e. small donations from millions of individuals rather than large donations from thousands of fat-cat givers. On the one hand, as political scientist Tom Ferguson pointed out a while back on TPMCafe, a great deal of Obama's early money, raised in 2007, came from large donors rooted in the financial sector. On the other hand, as the Center for Responsive Politics reports, 45% of all the money Obama has raised has come in amounts of $200 or less, double the level of John McCain.

By taking this step, Obama raises the stakes (pun not really intended) on how he and the Democrats handle their relationships with wealthy special interests going forward. Will he and his surrogates show up at all the corporate-sponsored parties scheduled around the Democratic convention in Denver? Will the party keep selling sky-boxes and preferential access to big donors? Obama himself may abjure these things, but can the party keep doing them and not step on his message?

I co-wrote, with Nancy Watzman, a book called "Is That a Politician in Your Pocket? Washington on $2 Million a Day," back in 2004, and have few illusions about how both parties are drenched in big money. The system, which Obama correctly describes as broken, gives them little choice. Has the Internet given Obama a way out? We shall see.