WHAT OTHERS SAY: An inauguration by and for the (corporate) people

Thursday, December 13, 2012 | 1:52 p.m. CST

Barack Obama will tie what had been thought to be an unreachable record when he takes the presidential oath of office for the fourth time on Jan. 21.

Because Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, falls on a Sunday, Mr. Obama will be sworn in at a private White House ceremony that day, and at noon the following day at the traditional public ceremony on the Capitol steps.

It will be recalled that because Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. bollixed up the wording of the oath four years ago, Mr. Obama was re-sworn in the next day to assuage doubters. Four oaths of office will tie Franklin D. Roosevelt's record, heretofore thought to be as impregnable as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.

The concern here is with the irony of that Jan. 21 date. Mr. Obama has decided that this year, he will solicit money directly from corporations to pay for the cost of the inaugural festivities. And Jan. 21 will mark the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s reckless decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed corporations to donate money directly to political campaigns.

The tin-eared symbolism of that is not good for the republic.

Mr. Obama has a schizophrenic relationship with political money. When he began his race for the White House in 2007, he pledged to abide by public financing limits. He dropped that pledge when it turned out that he was something of fundraising phenom. Not only could his staff shake the traditional big-money donor-trees, but the Obama campaign worked the Internet like an ATM machine, raising record amounts from small donors.

Last year, after condemning the "super PACs" spawned by the Citizens United decision, he stood by silently as Democrats formed their own super PACs on his behalf. This year, more than $2.3 billion was spent directly on the presidential race by campaigns, national parties, super PACs and other outside organizations. Nearly $4 billion more was spent on Senate and House races.

Figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show Mr. Obama's Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, got $413 million in outside money to the president’s $131.2 million. Mr. Romney also led in national party spending, $378.8 million to $285.8 million.

But Mr. Obama's official campaign outraised Mr. Romney's $683.5 million to $433.2 million. And now he can pad the lead by having corporations, labor unions and other groups pay for the inauguration.

The usual excuse offered by politicians who pose as campaign finance reformers while simultaneously raking in huge wads of cash is that they don't want to "disarm unilaterally." And it's true; you can't make changes if you don't get elected.

The excuse doesn't work for the inauguration.

The New York Times reported Sunday that the president's finance team is selling four different packages of access to the inauguration to big donors. The "Washington" package goes for $1 million for corporate and institutional donors and $250,000 for individual donors. The "Adams" package goes for $500,000 and $150,000; the "Jefferson" goes for $250,000 and $75,000; and the "Madison" for $100,000 and $10,000.

Only the bigger donors will get invitations to "benefactors brunches" at the White House. Donors of lesser amounts will have to be content with seats at the inaugural ceremony and parade.

Lest anyone think the president is selling out completely, the finance committee said it would not accept money from lobbyists, institutions that haven't repaid TARP bailout money or foreign interests. How very noble.

The excuse for all of this offered by the Obama campaign is that Democratic donors, having kicked in $1.2 billion to elect their man, are tapped out. Oh, please.

With unemployment still high, the fiscal cliff still looming, soldiers being killed in Afghanistan, homes still being foreclosed upon and dozens of other problems on the national agenda, a big party funded by fat cats will serve only to deepen national cynicism.

By law, taxpayers foot the bill for the inaugural ceremony itself and the official luncheon. But as the inauguration grew into a great national event, private money had to be solicited for the parade, balls, concerts and everything else. President George W. Bush was roundly criticized for soliciting $250,000 donations from corporate donors in 2005.

Four years ago, Mr. Obama refused corporate donations for the inaugural and capped individual contributions at $50,000. It was a "people's inaugural," with free concerts and events.

But in Citizens United, the Supreme Court said corporations are citizens, too. This will be the "corporate people's inaugural." How very wrong.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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