After Barack Obama takes the oath of office for a second White House term next month, he’ll be surrounded by pomp, circumstance and celebration largely bought and paid for by the very special interests he once vowed to disenfranchise from Washington politics.
Obama’s decision to accept unlimited-sized corporate donations for his second inauguration is a stark departure from his first celebration four years ago, when he banned such contributions and limited individual donors to $50,000 each.
And it will mark the fourth time since 2007 that the once-passionate champion of campaign finance reform has backtracked on his pledges to lessen special interests’ grip on Washington.
Just six months ago, Obama and his inner circle agreed to let the Democratic Party accept millions in corporate cash to fund his nominating convention in Charlotte. His hand-picked party leader, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, had vowed not to do so just a year earlier.
And the two recent flip-flops follow earlier reversals by Obama on Super PACs (Obama gave his tacit approval for Democrats to embrace the free-spending groups in 2012) and public financing for the general elections, which he abandoned for both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns after originally promising to stay inside a taxpayer-financed campaign system that would have imposed spending limits.
His performance has long-time supporters of campaign finance reform disillusioned, as Obama prepares to begin a second four years in office.
“President Obama's decision to accept unlimited corporate contributions for the next inaugural continues the shift away from past pledges to curtail special interest influence in Washington,” said Sheila Krumholz, the head of the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, which studies the intersection of money, politics and policy in Washington.
“It may well save taxpayers big money in a tight economy, but it's also yet another sign of how far removed we are from Obama's promise to end the pay-to-play culture in Washington that made up the backbone of his 2008 campaign,” she added.
The advocacy group Public Citizen has begun an online petition urging Obama to reconsider accepting corporate donations. By late Wednesday, more than 32,450 people had signed it.
Kent Cooper, who served as Federal Elections Commission disclosure chief after Watergate, when Congress imposed election spending and contribution limits, said Obama’s decision to accept corporate inaugural donors allows special interests who bet on the losing candidates in the last election to try to make a comeback by currying favor.
“When you are a major player in politics and recently backed the candidate who has lost, you need to quickly reassert yourself as a friend of the winner and try to regain a seat at the insiders' negotiating table where regulations and legislation are discussed,” Cooper said. “For corporations and large donors who backed Mitt Romney you would think it would be hard to rebuild that relationship, but it's as easy as writing another check.
“Although President Obama thought your money was buying influence before the election, apparently it's fine now to pay for the inauguration parties,” he added.
White House officials refused to discuss on the record the president's changing positions, except to say that he will still ban contributions from registered lobbyists, political action committees and companies that still owe the government bailout money. Donor fatigue after an expensive election was a factor, aides said privately, as was the need to simplify inaugural planning with such pending business as the fiscal cliff.
Taxpayers pay for a portion of the inauguration festivities, such as the formal swearing-in ceremony, security and the traditional parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.
But the rest of celebration, including any inaugural balls and other festivities such as concerts, celebrations and parties, are paid for with private money.
In 2009, Obama raised $53 million in private funds for his inauguration, when a record 1.8 million people braved the winter chill to see him take his place in history as America's first black president.
The amount dwarfed the $40 million George W. Bush raised for each of his inaugurations and the $30 million Bill Clinton raised for his second inauguration, in 1997.
This time around, with the economy still sputtering out of the worst downturn since the Great Depression, Obama is scaling back the celebrations a bit.
The official activities will span three days, starting with a National Day of Service on Jan. 19 and culminating on Jan. 21 with the swearing-in, the parade and the balls. Last time, it was four days of events.
But the biggest change is opening the spigot for corporate donations.
In 2009, the presidential inaugural committee capped individual donations at $50,000 and banned all donations from corporations, lobbyists and political action committees. Back then, Obama and his team went out of their way to send a message to Washington that its pay-to-play culture was about to change.
The corporate ban “will underscore their commitment to change business as usual in Washington,” the president-elect's team proclaimed four years ago in an announcement.
In his rise to power, Obama has vacillated between bold populist pledges to lessen the influence of corporate and special interest money in Washington, and making pragmatic decisions to abandon those pledges when it served his political interests.
As a freshman senator back in 2007, Obama championed several ethics and campaign finance reforms in Congress. And as he geared up for his first run for the White House, he filled out a questionnaire for the Midwest Democracy Network promising to agree to spending limits and public financing if he reached the fall presidential election.
"My plan requires both major party candidates to agree on a fundraising truce, return excess money from donors, and stay within the public financing system for the general election,” Obama wrote in his response in September 2007.
But less than a year later, when it became apparent Obama had assembled an unprecedented fund-raising team, Obama reneged and became the first major party presidential candidate to opt out of the public financing system for a general election. (George W. Bush opted out for the primaries in 2000 and 2004 but not the general election.) Obama ultimately raised a record-breaking $700 million plus for his 2008 bid. He raised a similar amount this time.
Once he won in 2008, Obama returned to his populist rhetoric on campaign finance, imposing the ban on corporate donations for his inauguration. And when the Supreme Court ruled corporations and individuals couldn't be constrained in their election spending, Obama used his State of the Union Address to chastise the justices sitting in front of him and urged Congress to create new limits.
“With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections,” Obama lamented in January 2010. “I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.”
A few months later, during his weekly Saturday radio and video address to the nation, Obama cited Republican President Theodore Roosevelt in pressing for campaign finance reform. "“He warned of the dangers of limitless corporate spending in our political system. He actually called it one of the principal sources of corruption in our political affairs,” Obama said.
The president also began criticizing the formation of free-spending groups known as Super PACs that wanted to take advantage of the new spending free-for-all. But by the time his 2012 re-election rolled around, Obama had given the go-ahead for Democrats to form their own big money groups. In fact, two of his former top White House aides formed one of the Democrats' most successful Super PACs in the last election to try to keep pace with Republicans who had embraced the idea much earlier.
And when Democrats selected Charlotte for their nominating convention host city, Party Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz imposed a ban on corporate contributions.
"This convention will be different," Wasserman Schultz said last year. "We will make this the first convention in history that does not accept any funds from lobbyists, corporations or political action committees. This will be the first modern political convention funded by the grassroots, funded by the people."
But when fund-raising lagged, the Democrats reversed course. The Washington Guardian reported recently the DNC convention committee accepted at least $5 million in corporate donations and drew down another $8 million in a loan from Duke Energy, a big utility with more than a dozen coal-fired plants still in operation that face regulation by the Obama administration.
Some may argue that Obama’s broken campaign finance promises don’t matter much. After all, accepting corporate donations is legal and Republicans have done it for years.
But for those voters who embraced the change that Obama promised them in 2008, the spectacle of his 2013 inauguration will be a sharp reminder that little has changed in the political money game: corporations and big donors will have their latest chance in January to curry favor with Washington's political elite in ways average Americans can’t.
"The inauguration parties are not civic public events,” said Cooper, the former FEC official who now runs the Political MoneyLine Web site that studies campaign finances. “They are private parties paid for by people who want to gain favor with the winner and people in power.”
The Associated Press contributed background for this story.