As President Barack Obama waits out the unexpectedly protracted nomination battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, he’s stepping up his role as the Democratic Party’s top draw for dollars, jetting to wealthy enclaves across the country to capitalize on his popularity among deep-pocketed donors.
In the first three months of the year, Obama has held nine fundraisers for Democratic candidates, in California, Texas, and Washington, D.C., nearly doubling his tally from the start of 2015. He’ll add four more to his docket at the end of this week, trekking back to Los Angeles and San Francisco this week for high-dollar events in what’s become his highest-yielding state.
Those gatherings will net millions of dollars for the Democratic National Committee and other party groups. Democratic officials say they continue to expect “significant” commitments of Obama’s time for fundraising in the coming months.
The hat-passing isn’t necessarily the campaign job Obama prefers in the waning days of his tenure. Aides and allies instead describe a President eager to hit the campaign trail in full-throated support of a Democratic nominee, rather than simply bashing Republicans in small rooms of the party faithful.
“At some point, as the leader of the Democratic Party, and as the most well regarded figure not just in the Democratic Party but in American politics, the President is going to play an important role in the general election, first and foremost by unifying Democrats behind the Democratic nominee,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
Obama would campaign for a Democratic successor “with some zest,” he added.
But with Sanders vowing to take his insurgent campaign all the way to July’s convention — meaning there’s no end nearing in the Democratic battle for delegates — the President is unlikely to headline a presidential campaign rally anytime soon.
He’s already taken to lampooning GOP front-runner Donald Trump in less overtly political settings, casting doubt on his policy qualifications during last week’s Nuclear Security Summit and deeming his plan to compel Mexico to pay for a border wall “impractical” and “wacky” during an appearance at the White House Tuesday.
After initially groaning when a reporter launched into a question on Trump — “Oh no,” he sighed — Obama came around to a stinging rebuke of Trump’s border plan, which involves threatening to disallowing payments sent by immigrants home to Mexico to force the country to pay for a wall.
“Good luck with that,” he scoffed.
Officials say he welcomes the opportunity to use run-of-the-mill presidential events to convey his political message, and improving approval ratings have only solidified the White House view that Obama will prove a valuable asset to the eventual Democratic nominee as soon as one emerges.
That means at this point Obama isn’t pushing Sanders to drop out, despite the uphill delegate climb the Vermont senator faces against Clinton. And while reports have emerged that he’s telegraphed a desire for the race to come to an end, people who have spoken with Obama privately say he acknowledged the race will last weeks, if not months, longer.
So for now, Obama is relegated to the fundraising circuit as Democrats battle for the nomination. It’s familiar territory for a President who in his first term attended more than 300 receptions, roundtables, dinners, concerts, Q+As, and every other method for collecting donations from wealthy Democrats that party operatives have devised.
His events this week will bring Obama’s count to 50 fundraisers for the 2016 election cycle, with more than 150 since he was re-elected in 2012. That puts him well on-pace to best President George W. Bush’s tally of 155 events in his second term, but not anywhere near the more than 400 events President Bill Clinton attended during his final four years in office.
He also fundraised heavily in the lead-up to the 2014 midterm contests, racking up 100 events that brought him — among other places — to the Los Angeles mansions of Gwyneth Paltrow, Shonda Rhimes, and Magic Johnson.
In California on Thursday and Friday, he’ll attend four events in the span of twenty-four hours, each one bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars into Democratic coffers. He’ll return to the Los Angeles mansions of “Spider-Man” star Tobey McGuire and Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn, two donors whose events he’s appeared at before.
In San Francisco, he’ll headline House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s annual “signature” fundraising event for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, hosted by socialite Ann Getty in her Pacific Heights mansion, as well as attend a DNC “roundtable” — the small group gatherings that cost as much as $33,400 a ticket.
Message to liberal donors
In his remarks to donors this year, Obama has sought to drum up excitement for the still-to-be-named Democratic nominee, a challenging proposition given the significant differences between Clinton and Sanders. But he’s also attempted to tamp down on fears among donors that the race is growing unwieldy.
“It’s an interesting political moment, right?” he said to laughter in the backyard of a Silicon Valley mansion in February. “It’s still early in the process. And there’s a tendency, I think, for commentators to hyperventilate, because it’s good entertainment value, and so every twist and turn, and various candidates pop up and then vanish, and all of this is somehow determinative of what’s going to happen. And then, three, four months later, nobody remembers what all the fuss was about because we get down to the real business of electing a President.”
Of Obama’s second-term fundraisers, almost a third have been in California, where wealthy liberals in Los Angeles and the Bay Area have for years been shelling out for a glimpse of the president. While figures showing exactly how much Obama has pulled in are difficult to ascertain since ticket prices for his events vary, a conservative estimate shows he’s generated at least $10 million in California since the 2016 campaign cycle began. It’s possible he’s raised much more.
Democratic officials said Obama was likely to increase the pace of fundraising in the coming months as the Democratic primary race wears on. Converting the Senate and House to Democratic control remains a top priority, one many Democrats feel is becoming likelier as long as Trump appears destined to top the Republican ticket.
Obama has already endorsed two Senate candidates — Rep. Patrick Murphy in Florida and Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania — in their primary bids. One Democratic official said those races are good indicators of where Obama will use his campaign presence this summer and fall: states with competitive Senate races that will also be in play for the presidential election.
For Obama, that’s a welcome departure from a strategy in 2014, which saw many Democratic Senate candidates distancing themselves from the President amid low approval figures. After Democrats lost control of the Senate, Obama and his aides sharply criticized the strategy, saying the President remained the country’s biggest draw for the Democratic base, including minorities, women and young people.
Those are the demographics they hope Obama can galvanize this time as the Democratic Party works to repair whatever rifts persist after the prolonged delegate fight between Clinton and Sanders. Democratic officials cite his appeal among young people as a potential salve for Sanders’ supporters should Clinton secure the nomination, and his popularity among minorities as useful should Sanders prevail.
But for now, those calculations remain only theoretical, leaving Obama to focus his attention squarely on Trump.
“People expect the President of the United States and the elected officials in this country to treat these problems seriously, to put forward policies that have been examined, analyzed, are effective, where unintended consequences are taken into account,” Obama said Tuesday. “They don’t expect half-baked notions coming out of the White House. We can’t afford that.”
In Los Angeles Friday, inspiration for Obama’s fundraising pitch will be nearby: Trump is expected to hold a midday news conference at his golf club overlooking the Pacific, only miles from the President’s events.