The Campaign Spot

The President’s Relentless Fundraising Pace Isn’t Really About the Money.

Over in Foreign Policy, Sunil Khilnani, a professor of politics and director of the King’s India Institute at King’s College London, argues that the problem with the U.S. government today is the four-year term of the presidency, and that Americans would be better off with a president limited to a single, six-year term. He repeatedly cites the distraction of fundraising and the reelection campaign:

Those routines no sooner deliver a new leader into office than he is required immediately to begin a new campaign for reelection. In an age of heightened media scrutiny, where any mistake has the potential to go viral and can in hours destroy political ambitions, timidity and trimming invariably become the order of the day for even the most visionary leaders. One can enter office clear-eyed about how to tackle America’s irrational energy consumption or its massive debt overhang, but policy fogs up fast when one is trying to keep potential funders and voters happy. So U.S. presidents spend their days waking to the prospect of bland compromise and turn in having abjectly sold out. . . . Let them, then, have one long shot at writing themselves into the history books — and at altering their country’s path. Give them six years to focus on the job in hand, rather than on dialing for dollars and desperately avoiding anything that might alienate voters.

There are a couple of problems with this analysis. For starters, one would think that presidents would be more successful in their second terms, once they’re liberated from the fear of facing the voters again. Yet there’s quite a bit of talk about a “Second Term Curse.” The electorate almost always exhibits a certain amount of buyer’s remorse.  By the sixth year of a presidency, the president’s party is usually (although not always) punished in the midterm elections. The final two years of most presidencies are exhausted “lame duck” years. Then there are the scandals: Past presidential second terms have featured Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Lewinsky scandal, Abramoff, and the financial meltdown.

But more importantly, Khilnani sees a relentless fundraising schedule as a de facto requirement of the job, when it is in fact a choice. If you’re an incumbent president, you’re not going to have a difficult time raising money. In fact, the last major-party candidate to have any serious issue with money was Bob Dole in 1996:

These flaws combined to sabotage the effort back in the spring, when Clinton, the Democrats and labor unions were pummeling Dole with negative ads. Dole failed to fire back because his campaign funds were depleted by a costly series of primaries that Clinton didn’t have to fight… It was the Dole campaign’s miscalculation to assume that it would have time to wage a television war with Clinton once the Republican convention in August had ended and $72 million in public money became available.

Since then, Bush, Gore, Kerry, Obama, McCain — all of them have had sufficient money to get their message out; their victories and defeats cannot really be attributed to insufficient donations.

Which brings us to Obama, who has done 40 fundraisers since declaring his reelection bid, who has raised $89 million and who has $61 million in cash on hand; when you throw in his DNC fundraisers, Obama has raised $155 million. Of course, he’s an incumbent president. He never has to worry about getting his message out; television cameras follow him wherever he goes. Taxpayers pick up the tab for half of his transportation expenses when he flies Air Force One for a trip that includes fundraisers and “officially non-campaign” speeches on college campuses. Barack Obama could decide he’s not raising another dime for his campaign and he still wouldn’t have a problem in terms of campaign cash.

Obama’s relentless fundraising schedule is not, in fact, about the money. It is about something else — increasingly, the sense that this is one of the few venues where Obama gets to feel the relentless admiration and euphoric adoration that he experienced throughout 2007 and 2008.

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