US President Barack Obama is no longer the outsider candidate who fueled his bid for the White House in 2008 with a flood of small donations from new and young voters inspired by his message of hope and change.
As a sitting president he has far greater authority and media access and his re-election campaign next year is expected to raise US$1 billion, which is unprecedented in US politics.
“In 2008, he was very much an insurgent candidate, somebody from out of nowhere with a wholly different story and the Obama campaign was as much a crusade as it was a traditional campaign for president,” said Christopher Arterton, a professor of political management at George Washington University who has also been a Democratic consultant.
With early polls showing Obama leading potential Republican rivals, he announced yesterday that he was running for re-election and that he would file campaign papers with the Federal Election Commission this week.
That would allow him to start campaign fund-raising and much of his war chest is expected to come from the kind of big-money donations he has criticized in the past.
This time, the former Illinois senator is no longer the fresh political face seeking to become the first black US president. His campaign next year will be a bigger, slicker machine, likely to dwarf that of his eventual Republican opponent.
Aides note the huge number of individual donors who gave to Obama’s campaign — a record 4 million — but only 25 percent of the money came from small donors who gave US$200 or less, according to the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) in Washington.
Obama will inevitably lose many of the individual donors who backed him four years ago, said Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College and an expert on campaign fund-raising.
“That’s something that we’re not going to see this time around, that level of excitement about the Obama candidacy that we saw last time, from people who are not traditional donors or traditional Democratic primary voters,” he said.
Obama amassed a record US$750 million as he surged to victory in 2008. His campaign total next year is expected to hit US$1 billion or more, even without a major Democratic primary opponent or the emergence of a strong Republican contender.
“It’s definitely within reach, as he raised three quarters of a billion last time. As the incumbent president, it’s quite plausible to imagine him raising US$1 billion,” CFI executive director Michael Malbin said.
Jim Messina, a former White House deputy chief of staff who will run Obama’s campaign, has been telling big supporters they will need to collect US$350,000 each. His campaign headquarters will be in Chicago and it will be staffed with White House veterans.
Obama made his message clear on Tuesday last week at a US$30,800-plate fund-raiser at a popular New York restaurant.
“I could not do what I do ... if I didn’t know that I had a lot of people out there rooting for me and a lot of friends supporting me,” Obama told donors at the dinner, which raised US$1.5 million for the Democratic National Committee.
Although he has received a boost from the recovering economy, Obama’s approval ratings could easily fall if the Libya war drags on and gas prices stay high, or if voters blame him for the huge US budget deficit.
“The reality of governing means that he cannot now be all things to all people. He has a record,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington non-profit group focused on campaign finance and ethics issues.
Obama has railed against a Supreme Court decision last year that removed restrictions on corporate and union campaign spending, and Democrats say the decision opened the floodgates for special interest money in politics.
While experts expect the ruling to benefit Republicans more than Democrats, given corporate displeasure with Obama’s laws to overhaul the US healthcare industry and put tighter regulations on big banks, Democrats will also cash in.
“It’s unrealistic to ask candidates to forgo this money, when by definition, if you do what you think should be done, you are going to lose,” McGehee said.
An effective Obama fund-raising effort could help the Democratic Party, which lost control of the House of Representatives to Republicans and has a smaller majority in the Senate after last November’s congressional elections.
Obama gave millions from his campaign war chest to Congressional candidates in 2008.
Every seat in the House will be up for grabs again next year, as well as a third of the seats in the Senate, and many experts say the battle for Congress — particularly for the Senate — could be the real fight.
Republican donors will be even more focused on Congress if their party cannot find a presidential candidate with a real chance of defeating Obama and some have admitted it will be difficult to deny Obama a second term.
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