A campaign finance choice for Obama: People or Wall St.?

How would you like to supplant Goldman Sachs as a major contributor to Barack Obama? How would you like to help America better see the myth of Barack Obama as the candidate of small contributors and see the reality that he is interlocked with Wall Street interests? Most importantly, how would you like to be part of a process to make it politically imperative to support small donations and forego contributions from America’s biggest monied interests? Here’s a path to consider.

Consider that during the 2008 election cycle, Goldman Sachs donated $994,795 to the Obama campaign. Other top Wall Street contributors included Citigroup at $701,290 and JP Morgan Chase at $695,132.

So what did they get out of it? At the very least, they got Barack Obama’s attention. The same cannot necessarily be said about you and me. But we are the very people for whom Barack Obama said that he was campaigning in 2008, and once again says he is doing in 2012.

For the past two and half years, progressives have been hoping that Barack Obama would commit himself to the agenda that many of us thought he favored when he campaigned in 2008. That included supporting the public option in health care, ending the war in Afghanistan, ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and stimulating the economy to whatever degree was necessary to wipe out unemployment.

To date, he has done none of the above. President Obama strikes me as what Winston Churchill once used to describe Russia: an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, surrounded by mystery. I can’t figure Barack Obama out and I have spoken with dozens of other people who have said the same thing. When I read Justin Frank’s book Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, there was very little that surprised me. The fact that as a child he tortured frogs only made his foreign policy and view on human rights that more understandable.

Since I am no closer to understanding what makes Barack Obama tick today than I was from the first day of the presidency, I have decided to take a more empirical approach. It is what Mark Felt, otherwise known as Deep Throat, said to Bob Woodward when he was investigating Watergate. Three simple words: “Follow the money.” Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein intensified their examination of the flow of money from the White House to the burglars who broke into the Watergate on June 17, 1972. Soon it became clear that Richard Nixon was involved in not only the cover-up of Watergate, but also the dirty tricks used against Democrats.

I certainly do not see Barack Obama doing anything criminal like Nixon. However, I do think that if we follow the sources of his campaign funding to the policies he supports, we can learn why he has not adopted or practiced a progressive policy. The big bucks came from Wall Street, other large corporations (Microsoft, IBM), universities (University of California, Stanford, Columbia), and law firms engaged in lobbying (Skadden, Arps; Latham & Watkins).

So here is a suggestion as to how to try to get Barack Obama to focus more on what middle and lower income people want rather than monied interests. “We the people” need to get the message to Barack Obama that he cannot take us for granted. We need to make our contributions conditional, conditional on him not taking money from large contributors.

As an example, suppose that we established an escrow account to match the $994,795 that Goldman Sachs gave Mr. Obama in 2008. We ask those individuals who gave small donations in 2008 to make pledges up to $50 into the escrow account. Once that account reaches $1,000,000 (essentially what Goldman donated), then the President could decide from whom he would take the money. The rules of the game would be that he could not take both. He could take either a million dollars from Goldman or a million dollars from the less affluent.

If the money came from small donors, 20,000 individuals would need to donate $50 each to reach a million dollars. Another option would be 100,000 individuals each giving $10.

It’s difficult to determine how many “small contributors” donated to the Obama campaign in 2008 because the names of small donors do not have to be public disclosed. However, the Los Angeles Times reported three weeks after the 2008 election that only 26% of Obama’s money came from individuals giving $200 or less. That is a mere 1% more than those who donated $200 or less to George W. Bush in 2004.

Choosing to be the first presidential candidate to pass up public financing, Barack Obama raised approximately three-quarters of a billion dollars in 2008. If 26% of Obama’s money came from small contributors, he would have received donations of $200 or less from actually 975,000 supporters. It was actually many more than that because most individuals gave less than $200.

However, the money from small donors totaled $195 million. So it would be very feasible to for individuals to supplant the donations of Goldman Sachs and 194 other such entities. The total money would be $555 million, far less than he had in 2008. But think of the good will that he would gain. He could afford to have far fewer commercials and advertisements because the word would be out that he was indeed the candidate of “the people.” Additionally, he could support policies such as another stimulus and ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy because he would not be beholden to the people who oppose them.

It’s all about choice. With creative, modest and conditional donating by millions of supporters, Barack Obama would be able to actually do what he told us he would do: be the candidate of the people. If he chose to not take that route but rather stay with the big donors, he might raise more money, but at the cost that it would eminently clear that he was a candidate of the wealthy.

It’s up to us. It will require two things that Barack Obama knows well, community organizing and utilizing the internet to raise money.

Sixteen months before the election, this idea is embryonic. However, it could be implemented with brainstorming and energetic grass-roots work. The goal would not be to elect Barack Obama; it would be to elect Barack Obama free and clear of large donors and only indebted to the millions of middle and lower income Americans who need him most.

If you are interested in further pursuing this and helping to refine the idea, please comment below or e-mail me at arthurlieber07@gmail.com.