President Obama sounded weary and maybe a tad worried late Friday during a rambling conference call with campaign donors whom he repeatedly begged to send money—and send it now.
“The majority on this call maxed out to my campaign last time. I really need you to do the same this time,” the president said in a highly unusual (and presumably legal) fundraising pitch from Air Force One on his way back to Washington from Colorado Springs, where he’d been assessing the terrible damage caused by uncontained wildfires. A special phone on the government aircraft is dedicated to political calls that are paid for by the campaign.
“I’m asking you to meet or exceed what you did in 2008,” the presidential pitchman continued, speaking to donors who were invited to dial in based on their contributions during the last election. “Because we’re going to have to deal with these super PACs in a serious way. And if we don’t, frankly I think the political [scene] is going to be changed permanently. Because the special interests that are financing my opponent’s campaign are just going to consolidate themselves. They’re gonna run Congress and the White House.”
The president’s 18-minute pleading—a recording of which was provided to The Daily Beast by an Obama contributor—hardly sounded like a man doing a victory lap after Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding Obamacare, as the Affordable Care Act has come to be known. Or, for that matter, like a candidate who has been beating his Republican opponent in recent polls of key battleground states.
Rather, Obama sounded like a dog-tired idealist forced to grapple painfully with hard reality. “In 2008 everything was new and exciting about our campaign,” Obama said. “And now I’m the incumbent president. I’ve got gray hair. People have seen disappointment because folks had a vision of change happening immediately. And it turns out change is hard, especially when you’ve got an obstructionist Republican Congress.”
But lest any of his donors believe the president sounded depressed, Obama quickly added: “Nevertheless, we’ve gotten more done in the last three years than most presidents do in eight years … I just hope you guys haven’t become disillusioned. I hope all of you still understand what’s at stake and why this is so important … I still believe in you guys, and I hope you still believe in me and the possibilities of this campaign.”
“The special interests that are financing my opponent’s campaign are just going to consolidate themselves. They’re gonna run Congress and the White House.”
In his most detailed assessment of the race so far, Obama lamented the cash advantage of Republican nominee-designate Mitt Romney, but offered hope that he could win reelection with a superior ground game and a more popular message. “We don’t have to match these guys dollar for dollar because we’ve got a better grassroots operation and we’ve got a better message,” he said. “The American people—the nice thing is they agree with our message when they hear it. We just can’t be drowned out … A few billionaires can’t drown out millions of voices.”
Obama noted that campaign-finance law requires both him and Romney to release monthly reports on fundraising—“and that could be a double-edged sword,” he said. “The downside is that the media hear these numbers and hyperventilate over it, and there’s a tendency to blow them out of proportion. But it does make the process more transparent. We see where we stand. And right now on a month-to-month basis, we’ve fallen behind.”
The president added: “Last month the Romney campaign raised $76 million. We raised $60 million.” That determines “our planning for whether or not we are gonna go on the air in Florida or Ohio or any of these battleground states, how much advertising we buy, what we spend when it comes to organizing teams.”
He added: “The truth is that early money is always more valuable than late money. And what we don’t want to do is be in a situation where, because everybody thinks that somehow we’re gonna win or people will just think Mr. Romney doesn’t know what he’s talking about—and then suddenly we get surprised later because it turns out that a couple of billionaires wrote $20 million checks and have bought all the TV time and we find ourselves flat-footed in September or October … We’ve got to make sure that we purchase advertising through August and September before the conventions,” he went on. “I think it’s fair to say that if we wait till the last minute we could be in for a pretty rude surprise, and that’s part of what we’re trying to avoid.”
The president warned: “I can’t do this by myself, and the progress we’ve made could unravel pretty quickly.” He urged his listeners on the conference call to contribute “today or as soon as possible” because “we’ve got to have the resources to make the choice crystal clear for the American people both in the air and on the ground.” Obama’s solicitation was followed up by an urgent email from campaign manager Jim Messina asking recipients to write a check immediately.
“The good news is we’re spending a lot more money on our ground game and grassroots organizing and voter registration,” the president said. “We just can’t be outspent 10 to 1. That’s what happened in Wisconsin recently. The Koch brothers and their allies,” he said, referring to billionaire conservative super-PAC funders David and Charles Koch, “spent more than the other side’s entire campaign—our side’s entire campaign.”
Obama contrasted the former Massachusetts governor unfavorably with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee last time around. “We’re facing a much different opponent than last time,” the president warned. “I don’t mean just the candidate—although last time we were running against somebody who at least believed in climate change, believed in campaign-finance reform, believed in immigration reform.”
“It’s also because the landscape’s changed because of the Supreme Court ruling Citizens United,” continued Obama. “We are going to see more money spent on negative ads through these super PACs and anonymous outside groups than ever before. And if things continue as they have so far, I’ll be the first sitting president in modern history to be outspent in his reelection campaign.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.