Dinner with friends brings criticism to President Obama
March 13th, 2013
04:05 PM ET
2 years ago

Dinner with friends brings criticism to President Obama

Washington (CNN) - President Barack Obama's having dinner with a bunch of friends. And that's where the controversy begins.

Wednesday evening the president addresses members of Organizing for Action, which was formed out of the grassroots wing of Obama's 2012 re-election campaign - Organizing for America - with a mission to promote the president's policy agenda.

The president's appearance at a dinner will be the most controversial part of the two-day OFA meetings here in the nation's capital, which are being called the Founders Summit. The dinner will include roughtly 60 people, according to OFA spokeswoman Katie Hogan. Both the summit and the dinner will include volunteers, neighborhood team leaders, former Obama campaign staff and donors who will shape the direction of Organizing for America. The dayside summit will consist of a series of meetings and will involve both large events and breakout sessions to think through strategy.

"OFA is a bottom up organization, and the Founders Summit is an opportunity to determine where we go from here – how to sequence and execute the issue campaigns, expand the organization, and to see the agenda a majority of Americans voted for in November through," says Ben LaBolt, the Obama re-election campaign national press secretary, who is advising OFA, which was created in January.

Hours before the dinner, OFA kicked off its meetings with a sort of pep rally and strategy session for attendees at the swank St. Regis Hotel - just steps away from the White House. On hand were Jim Messina, who steered Obama's 2012 re-election, David Plouffe, the 2008 campaign manager, and Jon Carson, OFA's executive director.

"When we set out to build this next iteration of OFA, our primary goal was to help build something to organize every American on behalf of this president's legislative agenda – the same priorities that millions and millions of Americans voted for on Election Day 2012," Messina said.

"You'll remember, from the campaign, when President Obama was criticized for saying you can't change Washington from the inside. But the truth is, he was right. If Americans don't organize, in support of the issues they believe in, and we don't help him do it, then lobbyists and special interests will drive Washington just like they did for decades."

Messina added: "In the first seven weeks, with a very small staff, over 1.1 million Americans… have done at least one volunteer action for Organizing for Action."

The real scrutiny of the group will come after the day's sessions, at the dinner that will feature the president.

It comes amid criticism that the group, which is registered as a non-profit, social-welfare organization, plans to grant special access to the president for top OFA donors–a claim that Messina has attempted to rebuke.

While some have attacked OFA for being like other organizations that take large donations from anonymous wealthy contributors and corporations, Messina wrote in an op-ed Thursday for CNN.com that OFA does not "accept contributions from corporations, federal lobbyists or foreign donors."

And while it doesn't have to disclose all of its donors, Messina said they "believe in being open and transparent" and pledged to identify donors who give more than $250 every quarter.

Last month, reports in the New York Times and Washington Post indicated supporters who raised or contributed more than $500,000 for OFA would be invited to attend meetings with the president four times a year.

The reports quickly prompted questions of whether top donors could buy access to the president.

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Monday shot down the notion that there was a price tag to meet with Obama or his staff. He said the president's appearance at OFA is just like any appearance he would make at other Democratic groups, such as the Democratic National Committee or the campaign organizations for the House and Senate.

"OFA was set up to promote the president's public policy agenda, and therefore as anyone would expect, the president would likely meet with representatives to discuss his agenda," Carney said in the daily briefing. "Any notion that there's a price set for a meeting with the president is absurd and wrong."

But he hasn't denied that top donors to the group could attend meetings with Obama or members of his staff. Carney also said Wednesday's night's dinner is similar to an address to the various campaign arms of the Democratic Party.

"The president speaks to the DCCC, DNC, DSCC. He'll speak to outside organizations that have policy agendas and that's entirely appropriate," Carney said at the White House press briefing Monday. But Carney said the agenda the president is pursuing, is "inherently bipartisan"

OFA spokeswoman Katie Hogan also defended against the reports.

"What [they were] in reference to, was people who wanted to take a leadership role in OFA at a donor level. That's it. It was not a threshold for anything else."

Hogan acknowledged that the $500,000 "was totally an amount that was discussed" but said nothing has been firmly decided. Yet she added: "Does that mean that those people, once they reach a threshold, then have access? No."

American Crossroads, a top independent conservative group co-founded by Karl Rove that backs GOP causes and candidates, put out a video Wednesday that accuses the White House of selling access to the president to top dollar contributors.

Non-partisan government watchdogs groups have raised questions about OFA's purpose, noting the reports.

"I mean I would question whether donors of 50 dollars will have meetings with the president. I imagine they won't," said Lisa Rosenberg with the Sunlight Foundation, a D.C.-based watchdog organization.

"It's all these donors of 50,000 or 100,000 (dollars) or more that get invited to these meetings, so clearly it is not entirely the grass roots organization in reaching out to the public that the founders claim it is," Rosenberg added.

One volunteer attending the morning meeting believes the criticism and questions are unfounded.

"I think the people who say, 'Oh its got the potential for this and that,' I say: 'Trust us,' said Carlotta Joyner, a Maryland volunteer who helped both Obama campaigns and now works with OFA.

Noting the group's promise to disclose donors who gave over $250, Joyner continued: "I would say, take a look at the website. Do you know who paid $500,000? I think that's a big difference from people who put that kind of money into other [similar] organizations and you don't know who they are."

"I have not heard or seen any promise that if you give this amount of money, this is what you'll be able to do. You'll be able to talk to the president for x-number of minutes."

The dinner with OFA comes as the president negotiates with congressional Republicans on a grand bargain to fix the country's fiscal problems. Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told CNN they don't see the president's appearance at OFA as an opportunity to push Republicans on a grand bargain. But they hinted that the president will continue to travel around the country to make his case.

soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Annoyed

    I don't understand, what you people see in this guy. What has he done for you lately? Differnece in opinion will alwys be there, but this guy literally has done nothing! At least Clinton made progress, at least whether you agree with Republicans or not they are acting. There is a reason for the hatred of this president, it is self earned. And does he deserve a vaction??? Well in my opinion NO, I don't get a vacation because as single mom with two kids, I can't afford it, so the president shouldnt either. It is 8 years of his life the most powerful person in the world, so NO if he didn't want to work everyday for 8 years he should have never even ran. He is so unqualified for this position it is laughable.

    March 13, 2013 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  2. Pander Bear

    March 13, 2013 – "American Crossroads, a top independent conservative group co-founded by Karl Rove that backs GOP causes and candidates, put out a video Wednesday that accuses the White House of selling access to the president to top dollar contributors."

    June, 22, 2012 – "Republican candidate Mitt Romney is hosting GOP strategist Karl Rove at a retreat for his biggest donors in Utah this weekend, raising objections about coordination between Romney’s presidential campaign and two interest groups advised by Rove, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS."

    But it's OK if you're a Republican.

    March 13, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  3. Expat American

    Jeff Brown in NJ – the nation would be in greater danger if the Republican/Tea Party started supporting The President. So as long as they attack anything and everything that The President does or says; the country can keep moving forward (pun unintended).

    March 13, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  4. Cepheus

    2016 the daggers out dinner lunch breakfast won't cut it read my lips

    March 13, 2013 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
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