President Barack Obama: The Hollywood Fundraiser

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Obama the Fundraiser

President Barack Obama’s fundraising abilities have been both mythologized and blasted by the Republican party. It is a skill that naturally better suited him as a candidate running for office than a president looking to leave a legacy, advance immigration reform legislation, or develop a strategy to stymie the growing threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As the president has maintained a rigorous fundraising schedule, attending events hosted by Wall Street and Hollywood amid the growing global crisis, Republican lawmakers and right-leaning pundits have criticized Obama for diverting his attention from more important problems then the Democratic party’s coffers. However, as November’s midterm congressional elections drew closer — with the Democrat party’s control of the Senate hanging in the balance — Obama paused his three-day tour of California to give an approximately 20-minute speech, similar to the ones he has made tens (or hundreds) of times at other fundraisers at the homes of the nation’s rich and powerful.

This time, the location was movie star Gwyneth Paltrow’s Brentwood backyard. The attendees paid between $1,000 to hear the president speak and $15,000 (some media outlets reported tickets sold for as high as $32,400) for the reception plus dinner, a greeting, and a photo with the president. The issues in focus were equal pay for women and the economic future of millennials. There is no denying that women and millennials across the country want to see equal pay and economic stability at the forefront of the Obama administration’s agenda. Yet, it must not be forgotten that this was, at its very core, a fundraising speech meant to reassure wealthy Democrat donors and highlight his administration’s recent accomplishments. While congressional midterm elections have come and gone, with Republicans winning a resounding victory, it is still important to analyze how Obama chose to wield his presidential power when the Democrat’s control of the Senate was in danger.

As such, this speech was more about the spectacle of leadership and less about actual leadership. In critical philosophical theory, the term spectacle is used to describe an event that is more memorable for the appearance it creates, and that appearance, usually superficial in nature, is meant to distract the public from more pressing issues at home. Thursday’s fundraiser was just that: a ritzy celebrity event masquerading as a town hall meeting. While this fundraiser was by no means unique, it did show, in a very real way, how the rich and powerful in American influence policy making.

As Paltrow herself said: “It would be wonderful if we were able to give this man all of the power that he needs to pass the things that he needs to pass.” Not only does that statement show a blatant disregard for how the United States government was designed to function, but her use of “we” is suspect. Given that she indicates Obama should be granted the power to accomplish everything on his agenda, it seems the “we” she used means people like her, not all voters.

Republicans took issue not with Paltrow’s political rhetoric but with the amount of time Obama has devoted to fundraising. “I don’t understand this president,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said on Fox Sunday back in July amidst another California fundraising trip. “The crisis on the border and he did the fundraisers, the fundraisers in New York while there are major major conflicts, not to mention the loss of American lives reported. I do not understand it.” Even though Republicans may not be in a place to critique, as fundraising is a standard part of political life in America, they do make a very real point about boundaries. Obama may be a Democrat president, but as president he (ideally) must listen to the worries of more than his Democratic constituency. But his appearance at Paltrow’s fundraiser was unabashed partisan political activity.

Obama played a complicated role in these upcoming elections. With his job approval rating standing at 43% — well below his term average of 48% — pollsters are keen to glean insight on how voters view his leadership missteps in order to better predict results. Survey results from CBS News show that the president is indeed a motivating factor for almost a majority of voters. More than half of all Republicans, 56% — plus 36% of independents and 31% of Democrats — will cast their ballots as votes against the president. Meanwhile, just 18% want their votes to count in favor of the president. These numbers may not seem especially high when considering how few Americans approve of his job performance, but these figures just about match those recorded during the midterm election of George W. Bush’s second term in office. The 36% of total voters who cast their votes against Bush in November 2006 can be seen as a new baseline, given how politically polarized the Washington has become during the Obama and Bush administrations.

Historically, midterms are referenda on the incumbent president, and they typically favor the party that does not control the White House. November’s elections were no different. It may seem that how Americans judge the president would have very little bearing on congressional elections, even if it does speak to the condition of the American political system. However, data shows that there is in fact a correlation between presidential approval ratings and the success of their party in congressional elections. For example, when Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in the 1994 election, President Bill Clinton’s job approval rating stood at 46% in the final Gallup poll conducted before Americans went to vote. Similarly, a Gallup survey conducted just before the 2006 midterm elections put George W. Bush’s approval rating at 38% and Democrats gained 31 seats in the House of Representatives and 6 seats in the Senate. While his approval ratings have rebounded somewhat, Barack Obama is far from popular.

Yes, Money Still Runs Politics

Money, by comparison, has a much more obvious function than the president’s approval rating. The amount of money politicians have spent on campaign advertisements is huge. For scope, in September alone, one of every five dollars spent on cable TV advertising in September was spent on political ads. It is impossible to argue that money does not play a huge role in political power. A recent political science study — “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” published by Princeton University Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Professor Benjamin Page — found that, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

Even Michelle Obama was quoted back in July as asking donors to “write a big, fat check” to help Democrats defend the Senate majority, despite the fact she admitted just the day before that “there’s too much money in politics.” Obama himself hdescribed the stakes of November’s midterms not as partisan fight, but a fight for equality. “If the Republicans win, we know who they’ll be fighting for,” Obama said at a New York fundraiser earlier in October. “Once again, the interests of billionaires will come before the needs of the middle class.” But it is the United States’ wealthy class he is courting. While his administration is not solely responsible, it is still important to note that incomes for the top 1% of Americans rose several percentage points and incomes for the bottom 99% shrank 4% between 2009 and 2012, according to research conducted by University of California, Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez.

Why Is Gwyneth Paltrow Getting Grief?

Much of the debate surrounding the Los Angeles fundraiser is focused on Paltrow’s use of the term working mother. The goal here is not to dissect whether Gwyneth Paltrow should have described herself as a working mother, analyze how difficult motherhood is for her, or decide whether she is a good mother or not. Overall, that is pretty irrelevant to any important political discourse, and arguments have already been made in comment sections across the Internet. What is significant about Paltrow’s fundraiser is not what she said — although her effusiveness over the president’s “handsome” looks failed to dispel any negative female stereotypes. Rather, the takeaway from Thursday’s event was how truly removed the average American is from the political process. This is by no means an attempt to pinpoint a new phenomenon, nor a previously hidden trend — as the research of Gilens and Page confirms. Yet the economic inequality embedded in the U.S. political system was displayed simply, and without the complications of equations, at Paltrow’s fundraiser.

To meet Obama, to tell him that “it would be wonderful if we were able to give this man all of the power that he needs to pass the things that he needs to pass,” all that was needed was a $15,000 dinner ticket. The issue is not whether Paltrow is a working mother or not, but that she has the power to tell the president that, unlike so many American voters. “He’s not out there meeting ordinary people. He’s out there listening to the views of those who can afford to give him lots of money,” Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance researcher at Loyola Law School, told The Guardian last year. “Over time, this is bound to have a distorting [effect] on your views of the world.”

It also served to distort how political that fundraiser really was by the spectacle of Gwyneth Paltrow stumbling over her words in the presence of the president’s “handsomeness.” Even the entertainment media site TMZ described the event with scorn, calling the fundraiser “the latest example of how demeaning it has become for presidents to act like circus animals — performing for crowds that will feed them … in this case, feed them with money to line political coffers.”

Should the President Not Attend Fundraising Events?

Given the stakes of November’s midterm congressional elections and the fact that the American electorate is growing ever more acrimoniously partisan, it is no surprise that fundraising has taken on such importance in American politics. Republicans have had their own embarrassing moments in the spotlight; the GOP’s “We are People Too” campaign only came across as too realistic. But that Obama is president means that his fundraising efforts are much more concerning than those of Republicans running for reelection in Congress. Sure, other sitting presidents have attended fundraising events, but none to the extent of Obama.

It can be argued that the importance his administration has placed on bolstering party coffers is only a symptom of the increasing polarization of the political system. It can also be said that presidents are under pressure to help their party. However, his critics go farther; they argue that Obama sees little value in working with Congress in the manner of Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton, and by fundraising, he is attempting to swing the balance of power in his party’s favor rather than work out compromises with the current Congress.

In fact, according campaign finance experts, the growth of presidential solicitation shows how fundraising has become a permanent and dangerous fixture of American politics. Since the Reagan administration, the number of fundraising events attended by sitting presidents has been increasing. That trend is dangerous because “the downside of all this time spent away from office is the time the president is not doing his job as chief executive, promoting legislation or working with Congress,” Levinson told The Guardian. “As more money is dropped into the political process it has become a self-perpetuating cycle, requiring politicians to spend ever more time seeking donations rather than governing. It’s an imperfect use of his time.” Furthermore, “the president’s time is his scarcest resource,” Brendan J. Doherty, an associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, told The Washington Post. “By forgoing other activities to fundraise, there is a definite shift in presidential resources.”

Not only is it an imperfect use of the president’s time, but that time is funded by taxpayer dollars. Of course, the White House ha refused to disclose to CBS News how much this Democratic fundraising trip has cost. “As in other administrations, we follow all rules and regulations to ensure that the DNC or other relevant political committee pays what is required for the president to travel to political events,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. But still, that leaves the public in the dark on the portion of the bill shouldered by taxpayers and how much the DNC will reimburse the federal government. That unwillingness to share key information on the financing of the president’s extracurricular activities runs contrary to the promise made by his administration to keep the functioning of the executive branch as transparent as possible. But secrecy is a growing trend in the president’s fundraising appearances.

What is known is these fundraisers bring in a lot of money. Obama attended as many as 56 fundraisers ahead of the midterms, of which a significant portion were closed to the press. Of course, the White House has not given any figures on how much the Los Angeles raised, but it has been estimated that his last California fundraiser brought in more than $6 million.

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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