President Obama's re-election campaign made an about-face late Monday in its opposition to super PACs, encouraging donors to send their unlimited contributions to one such group founded by a former administration spokesman.
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina emailed supporters to formally endorse contributions to Priorities USA, the Democratic super PAC founded by Bill Burton, a former White House deputy press secretary.
"With so much at stake, we can't allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm," Messina wrote on the campaign's blog. "Therefore, the campaign has decided to do what we can, consistent with the law, to support Priorities USA in its effort to counter the weight of the GOP Super PAC."
The decision represents a stark reversal for Obama, who has been among the most vocal critics of these outside political spending groups since the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling that paved the way for the rise of super PACs.
Obama has led Democrats in opposition to these groups, especially at the height of 2010's congressional elections. Republican-aligned groups like American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS took advantage of the new rules to great effect, spending tens of millions of dollars against Democrats during that election.
"And thanks to a Supreme Court decision called Citizens United, they are being helped along this year by special interest groups that are spending unlimited amounts of money on attack ads … without ever disclosing who’s behind all these attack ads," Obama said of Republicans and super PACs that fall. "Now, that’s not just a threat to Democrats — that’s a threat to our democracy."
The president expressed his alarm as recently as Sunday in an interview with TODAY's Matt Lauer: "One of the worries we have obviously in the next campaign is that there are so many of these so-called super PACs, these independent expenditures that are gonna be out there," he said in a pre-Super Bowl interview.
Moreover, after Priorities USA had launched, the White House continued to encourage it to abide by a stricter set of rules and disclose its donors. As recently as last week, Senate Democrats had announced their intention to investigate these groups, with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) arguing that the notion that groups like these don't coordinate a failure of the "smell test."
The Obama campaign's reversal, though, is a testament to the effectiveness of these groups. Restore Our Future, a super PAC established on behalf of Mitt Romney, has raised tens of millions of dollars already and spent some of that war chest with great effectiveness against Romney's rivals in the Republican primary.
Messina's statement Monday evening said that senior campaign officials, along with some White House and cabinet officials, would attend events and solicit donations for Priorities USA. Those actions are permitted under federal election laws, though Priorities USA is barred from coordinating formally with the Obama campaign. (Messina said that Obama, Vice President Biden and the first lady would not participate in this effort.)
"As has become evident in the past month, the only enthusiasm in the Republican Party is among oil company billionaires and investment bankers on Wall Street looking to defeat President Obama," Burton said by email in reaction to the decision. "We’re committed to providing a balance to Karl Rove and the Koch brothers who have pledged more than half a billion dollars to their effort."
According to a filing this month with the Federal Election Commission, Priorities USA Action had managed to raise about $1.2 million in the second half of 2011, leaving it with about $1.5 million in the bank at the end of the year.
With the heft of the Obama campaign behind its efforts, though, Priorities USA could see its bank accounts swell, giving the group millions to spend on behalf of the president — and agains his eventual Republican challenger — over the course of the next nine months.