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. Continued...