WASHINGTON — President Obama’s inauguration planners are embracing a Groupon-like “daily deal” concept to scrounge up scarcer-than-expected donations, but this is not about discount inaugural burritos or half-off Joe Biden merchandise.
Instead, one of the latest deals — with “only 25 packages available” and a 5 p.m. expiration — offered a candlelight reception with Obama, Biden, and their wives.
The price? A cool $50,000.
Four years ago, that was the maximum donation accepted for Obama’s inauguration, which touted such limits as evidence of its ethical standards. Now, it’s a bargain. Individuals are being asked to contribute up to $1 million, and the ban on corporate donations has been lifted.
Obama’s lifting of limits on inaugural fund-raising has led to criticism that he has gone from a candidate calling for an end to business as usual in Washington to one who is embracing the big money he once said he would reject.
“It’s another instance of Obama not living up to the talk that he talked,” said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for the government accountability group Common Cause. “It’s never too late to turn back. But this was a relatively easy and simple way to put some muscle behind his words.”
Inauguration organizers, however, defend the decisions as pragmatic. The president’s $1 billion campaign wrung donors dry, they say, while this round of inaugural fund-raising still declines money from lobbyists or political action committees.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee’s “goal is to make sure we are able to meet our fund-raising obligations for this civic event in a way that comports with this administration’s commitment to transparency and to not accepting contributions from lobbyists and PACs,” committee spokesman Cameron French said in a statement.
Obama’s 2009 inauguration, a history-drenched affair featuring the nation’s first African-American president, had little trouble drawing donations. The event attracted an estimated 1.8 million people to Washington, costing $53 million, with private donors funding 10 balls, the parade, and entertainment.
Taxpayers, meanwhile, pay lesser costs that are deemed necessary by Congress. The 2009 swearing-in ceremony cost the public $1.24 million, and a similar amount will be billed this year, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. Security across Washington, Maryland, and Virginia totaled more than $100 million and was paid by federal and local governments.
Obama’s inaugural team said in 2009 it would have high standards when it came to collecting money, pledging it would underscore the president’s “commitment to change business as usual in Washington and ensure that as many Americans as possible, both inside and outside Washington, will be able to come together.”
The 2009 inaugural attracted people such as Steve Gutherz, a Cambridge-based immigration attorney, who drove with his wife from their home in Sudbury and “slummed at people’s houses” to witness history, he said.
“I felt like it was the end of a dark area,” said the 56-year-old, who donated $1,000 to attend an inaugural ball after the swearing-in ceremony. “There was great optimism and hope. . . . It was an American experience.”
But this time, Gutherz said he will neither attend nor donate to the president’s second inauguration, as the novelty has worn off and intensity died down.
“It’s not because I’m disappointed with the president at all,” Gutherz said. “It’s just that I did it. I don’t need to do it again.”
While an allotment of $60 tickets to inaugural balls for average Americans sold out in minutes, the elite can still don a tuxedo or gown and show up as long they pay the minimum $10,000 for a special event package.
Analysts say it is not surprising that the Obama team had to loosen the rules to collect enough money for a second inaugural.
“There’s a certain amount of difficulty going back to small donors again and again and again,” said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of Stonehill College’s Department of Political Science and International Studies.
District of Columbia officials expect 600,000 to 800,000 supporters to attend the Jan. 21 ceremony, less than half the number of four years ago. Festivities have been cut from four to three days this year, and the number of official inaugural balls has been cut from 10 to two.
Most notable was the administration’s decision last month to accept corporate cash and $1 million individual donations. Organizers are soliciting big-dollar contributions for various ticket packages providing access to special events, naming the practice after four of the nation’s founders.
This year, top-level George Washington donors — individuals paying $250,000 and institutions breaking $1 million — get reserved parade seats and tickets to an inaugural ball, among other perks. John Adams donors, despite paying a $150,000 starting price, don’t get reserved bleacher seats.
Purchasing the Thomas Jefferson and James Madison packages, starting at $75,000 and $10,000, respectively, affords only “special,” but not “premium,” event access.
All four levels of presidential packages do provide access to a “Finance Committee Road Ahead Meeting,” which suggests another push for contributions.
Corporate cash and top-shelf ticket packages and daily deals are not the only changes from 2009. The Presidential Inaugural Committee previously disclosed donors, including their hometowns and contribution amounts, a month before Obama was sworn in.
But the committee’s first disclosure this year came last Friday evening, when it published on its website about 400 benefactors, including a handful of corporations. The list included neither donation amounts nor benefactors’ employer or hometown, information the Federal Election Commission requires within 90 days after the event.
“Obama was not only disclosing a lot more [in 2009], but he was bragging about it,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the open-government advocate Sunlight Foundation. “It’s startling now because it’s so transparently untransparent.”
The planning committee’s list of donors this year includes seven corporations and a number of Obama donors who were top 2012 campaign bundlers, according to analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks political donations.
Along with giants such as Microsoft and AT&T, benefactors include biotech firm Genentech, which lobbied Congress heavily during its health care overhaul. Also making the list is Financial Innovations Inc., a marketing firm based in Rhode Island that ran the Obama campaign’s official online store last year.
Neither Genentech nor Financial Innovations immediately returned calls for comment on Thursday.
Obama’s decision to solicit $1 million donations and corporate cash is a return to recent tradition. The FEC allows unlimited contributions. But George W. Bush capped donations for his first and second inaugurations at $100,000 and $250,000, respectively. He also accepted corporate money, bringing in $30 million in 2001 and $42 million in 2005, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Bill Clinton’s organizers unsuccessfully tried to sell million-dollar corporate packages in 1993, though they did rake in cash donations up to $250,000 en route to raising between $25 million and $30 million.
Representative Michael Capuano, the Somerville Democrat, said the changes in donation limits could be avoided if, as he advocates, inaugurations are toned down and publicly funded.
“It’s a reality,” Capuano said of the decision to lift contribution limits, “but it’s a reality we could change if we wanted to. . . . I come from a different world. I cannot believe somebody would donate $1 million for two tickets to anything.”
David Uberti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org