Barack Obama’s Well-Tended Money Machine

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The great American poet and prose-mangler William Burroughs once offered some words of advice for young people, words that work just as well for inhabitants of Washington D.C.: “An old junk pusher told me,” he wrote, “ ‘Watch whose money you pick up.’ ”

This is especially true in politics. Whatever Howard Dean’s other noble characteristics, for example, only a precious few will ever again see him as an independent voice in the debate over pharmaceuticals since he has taken untold amounts of money, through a law firm, from drug companies. (Dean even dons a hard hat these days, and looks real interested as he tours a biologic manufacturing facilities with BIO’s top lobbyist Jim Greenwood. See the picture here.) He can swear to his grave that his views are not for sale, but it won’t matter. He picked up dirty money, money that was specifically set aside by a multi-billion dollar industry to influence lawmaking. He made himself suspect.

This is the same problem that Barack Obama faces today, after a terrific bit of reporting in the Washington Times by Matthew Mosk. The story examines the many ways in which Obama has rewarded his top fundraisers since arriving at the White House—through ambassadorships, a golf game on Martha’s Vineyard, events at the White House, bowling at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, private briefings with senior officials like Jim Messina and Austan Goolsbee, etc.

Since Obama has taken money from all of these people he is rewarding–often money of the six-figure variety–his motivations are suspect. It looks like payback. It looks bad.

Obama’s aides offer a simple defense: At least we are not as bad as the other guys, which is itself an admission of sorts. “I would say from our reckoning, our research, there are fewer donors getting fewer things, whatever you may call them, from this White House than from any White House in memory,” explains Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman at the Democratic National Committee.

Mosk’s article does not clearly show otherwise. There are no overnight sleepovers in the Lincoln bedroom, which Clinton made so famous. And the mixers with donors and the president appear to be more limited than the systematic schmoozing of George W. Bush’s presidency. (They also involve a number of long-time personal Obama friends, who have ties with the president far deeper than fat checks.) But none of these qualifications remove the stain completely. As Mosk points out, Obama himself has acknowledged as much during the campaign, when he said that he “suffered from the same original sin of all politicians, which is we’ve got to raise money.”

The problem is that the White House now finds itself in a position where spokesman Robert Gibbs seems to be denying the obvious. Here is an example of how the briefing went today:

QUESTION: Was there a quid pro quo here?

GIBBS: No, of course not.

QUESTION: Well, the DNC documents actually say, those who raise $300,000 before the 2010 midterm election get quarterly meetings with senior members of the Obama administration.

GIBBS: I’d point you to the DNC on that.

QUESTION: But they’re with White House officials.

GIBBS: I’d point you to the DNC.

Not exactly Gibbs’ finest hour from the podium. Were the administration to do the honest thing, they would admit what Obama admitted during the campaign–Barack Obama is a politician who is willing to do certain things for those who give him lots of money. This is really not a secret. Almost every week this fall, the White House has followed Obama to fundraisers all around the country, where he spends time with people in exchange for money.

It is the same on the streets as it is in marble halls, the same in the bordellos of Tangier as in the ballrooms at the Mandarin Oriental. The money you pick up matters. To pretend otherwise is to play us for fools. There were a lot of people Obama could have golfed with on Martha’s Vineyard, and he chose his top New York bundler, UBS Americas CEO Robert Wolf. As Burroughs, may he rest in peace, put it, “Don’t take me for dumber than I look.”

POSTSCRIPT: Here is Burroughs in all his profane glory. (Beware, some harsh language, and harsher imagery, included.)