By Peter Wallsten,President Obama and top White House aides are waging a behind-the-scenes push to win over skeptical big-dollar donors — whose early money is needed to help fund a dramatic summertime expansion of his battleground-state machinery.
Campaign officials are working to broaden Obama’s network of “bundlers,” the well-connected rainmakers tasked with soliciting big checks from wealthy donors, while seeking to preserve the aura of a grass-roots movement by luring back the kind of small Internet donations that helped shatter fundraising records four years ago.
To do so, Obama and his aides are leveraging every asset available to a sitting president — from access to top West Wing officials to a possible food tasting with the White House chef.
Much of the fundraising in recent weeks has occurred at targeted events designed to appeal to specific groups, many of which have expressed frustration with administration policies, including Jews, gays and business leaders. Obama has attended 28 fundraisers from coast to coast — a pace that could continue, or even accelerate, over the next several months.
The West Wing charm offensive shows how Obama’s White House, which has eschewed Clinton-style traditions of feeding donor egos with Lincoln bedroom overnights and frequent phone calls from the president, is adjusting itself for a campaign that needs to overcome low approval ratings and a sour economy.
“They were more skewed toward their base,” said Steven Green, a former Samsonite chief executive and donor to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns who hosted an Obama fundraiser in Miami this month. “Now they realize that there is this large group of donors out there, and for better or for worse, they need to cater to them. To be frank, I think it’s somewhat new to them, and they’re not quite sure how to address that donor base. [The donors] are pretty high-maintenance.”
The push comes as Obama’s campaign has roared to life in recent weeks and strategists prepare for a summer of staff hirings and field office openings across key battleground states.
It is an unusually early move to establish the ground-level infrastructure that past campaigns typically put in place in the final months before an election.
A key player in the closed-door donor recruitment is White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley, a former banking executive who has huddled in recent weeks over breakfasts and dinners with business leaders and Wall Street financiers in Chicago, New York and Washington — seeking to ease tensions over new financial regulations and other administration policies.
Daley and other officials have also tried to help court Jewish donors who have expressed frustration with Obama’s Middle East policies, according to people familiar with the discussions.
In one case this month, White House adviser Valerie Jarrett spent an hour visiting a major pro-Israel donor identified by the campaign as a potential financial supporter. And, this spring, campaign manager Jim Messina made his pitch during at least two meetings in Manhattan with Wall Street executives.
Obama, along with his potential GOP rivals, has been pressing hard for dollars to make a strong showing when the first major fundraising quarter of the 2012 campaign ends Thursday. The president’s team has set a goal of raising $60 million between the campaign and the Democratic National Committee during the three-month period.
Campaign officials declined to say what their fundraising goal is for 2012, although they said it will probably exceed the $745 million the campaign raised in 2008.
They reject media speculation that the effort could reach or exceed $1 billion — perhaps sensitive to the potentially awkward image of waging such a costly campaign at a time of national austerity. Instead, officials seek to focus attention on the quest for small-dollar Internet donations, which helped spur success four years ago.
Recent e-mail appeals, for instance, offered $5 givers the chance through a raffle to have dinner with Obama. On Monday, the campaign added Vice President Biden to the mix, distributing a video in which the president describes the affair as “dinner with Barack and Joe.”
Campaign officials say they have attracted far more small donors than they had by this stage in the 2008 campaign. A weekend solicitation from Messina promoted a goal of attracting 450,000 donors by the Thursday deadline.
Campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt declined to comment on private fundraising meetings. He said the campaign “won’t accept contributions from Washington lobbyists or special interest PACs — instead, we rely on contributions from individuals across the country.”
Nevertheless, the outreach to big donors underscores the campaign’s need for early money to help fend off a revived Republican Party determined to defeat Obama.
Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, for instance, is expected to be able to raise vast amounts of money through his personal wealth, long-standing business ties and connections made during his unsuccessful presidential bid four years ago, when the former Massachusetts governor raised $107 million.
Outside groups are also organizing to defeat Obama. American Crossroads, which is backed by Karl Rove, has set a goal of raising $120 million to spend on the 2012 election and has launched a $20 million ad campaign that attacks Obama’s handling of the economy.
Obama and his campaign are asking high-dollar donors to give up to $35,800 — the combined maximum permitted donation to the DNC and the campaign.
Bundlers who agree to raise $350,000 attain a coveted spot on Obama’s national finance committee, which entitles members to regular invitations to meet with top campaign strategists and administration officials.
‘Like they’re on the inside’
A new initiative inside the campaign, called Gen44, aims to lure small and mid-level donations from professionals younger than 40 and foster the next generation of bundlers.
Young people who agree to raise $100,000 are named national co-chairmen of Gen44 — Obama is the 44th president — and gain access to the same events and strategy sessions as the campaign’s megabundlers. Several, for example, attended a recent national finance committee meeting in Chicago, where they could meet White House advisers such as former National Economic Council chief Lawrence Summers and attend a cocktail party at the home of 2008 campaign finance chairwoman Penny Pritzker.
A number of the high-dollar events headlined in recent weeks by Obama included special sections for smaller donors giving through Gen44. And, across the country, program organizers rely largely on events that charge as little as $44 per person — such as an April gathering at a Boston bar with local and state elected officials.
Boston lawyer Noah Shaw, a national co-chairman for Gen44, said he was working to gin up creative fundraising events for the fall. The 34-year-old hopes to arrange a food tasting that would feature a number of Boston chefs. Shaw plans to ask the campaign for permission to invite White House chef Sam Kass.
Connecting donors to White House and campaign officials is a critical part of the process, fundraisers said. Personal contact is the best, but potential donors are also frequently invited to participate in conference calls with top campaign strategists and presidential aides.
“The best way to get people motivated, I’ve found, is to make them feel like they’re on the inside,” Shaw said.
White House officials have also headlined some high-dollar events.
Senior adviser David Plouffe, who managed the 2008 campaign and works just steps from the Oval Office, addressed donors in Texas.
Daley was billed as a draw for potential donors at a glitzy, star-studded fundraiser headlined by Obama last week with New York gay activists. The adviser wound up not attending, but his presence was anticipated in a Democratic Party official’s e-mail blast before the event — listing Daley along with celebrities such as Tony Award-winning actress Audra McDonald and actor Neil Patrick Harris of TV’s “How I Met Your Mother.”
For those seeking “a little gravitas,” the note said, the “President’s Chief of Staff, the quietly powerful Bill Daley, will be with us.”
In some ways, Obama’s fundraising effort is easier this year than it was four years ago, given the inherent advantages of his being a sitting president. But the president and his top aides also must contend with a number of policy positions and statements that have turned off some potential supporters.
In her meeting with the pro-
Israel supporter, Jarrett listened as the donor expressed dissatisfaction with the White House’s approach to the Middle East. The donor remained on the fence after their discussion but later said the meeting left an impression.
“She’s got very limited time, so I should see it as meaningful, right?” said the donor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation. “You don’t get a visit every day from the White House’s senior adviser.”
Obama received numerous ovations at the fundraiser with gay activists, but a heckler repeatedly interrupted his remarks by declaring “Marriage!” It was a reminder that, despite his rollback of the military ban on openly gay service members and his administration’s refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, the president has yet to fully embrace the idea of legalized gay marriage.
At a $25,000-per-couple dinner in Washington last week with about 80 Israel supporters, a number of attendees stood to question Obama’s recent statements on Israel, in which he declared that any peace deal with the Palestinians would be based on 1967 borders and certain land swaps. A participant, Baltimore real estate developer Stewart Greenebaum, said later that Obama “didn’t dodge any questions.”
Wall Street executives, angry over the financial services regulation bill and Obama’s rhetoric blaming bankers for their role in the country’s economic collapse, have been the target of some of the White House’s most intensive courtship.
Messina has been meeting with potential bundlers from Manhattan to Los Angeles. In sessions this spring with Wall Street bankers, he was “emphatic” that Obama needed their early commitment to give and raise large sums, according to someone in the room.
One major Democratic donor who attended a Messina session described a sense of “quiet hostility” among the Wall Street executives present as the strategist listed Obama’s policy achievements and encouraged their financial assistance.
Another person familiar with Daley’s private talks with business leaders said the process felt like a rushed courtship.
“It’s not a friendly relationship,” the person said.
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