Barack Obama—or, rather, “Barack Obama”—sent a downer of an e-mail to his supporters a few weeks ago. “I will be the first president in modern history,” he predicted, “to be outspent in his reelection campaign.” Not all that long ago, it looked like the president might smash the record $746 million he collected in 2008 by raking in $1 billion this time around; now the Obama team expects it will be Mitt Romney who brings in that much. There are many reasons for the reversal, including the rabid largesse of the anti-Obama side. But one key cause seems to have until recently gone oddly overlooked by the president’s fund-raising operation: Party affiliations aside, rich Democrats are still rich people, and expect to be treated as such.
A politico who travels in high-dollar Democratic circles in New York divides the reluctant donors he knows into three categories: “A third of them were Jewish and were pissed off about Israel. Another third were from the financial sector and were mad at him because he called them ‘fat cats.’ And then a third say, ‘I raised a shitload of money for him and then I never heard from him.’ ” It’s this last group that feels most conflicted. Unlike the Democratic Likudniks and Wall Streeters, who have political or economic reasons for supporting (tacitly or explicitly) Romney, these rich Democrats don’t want to see their party lose the White House. But they also don’t want to reward Obama and his team for what they see as shoddy treatment.
When Obama was an upstart presidential challenger, the psychic reward backers received from giving to his history-making campaign was sufficient, and his refusal to kiss ass—whether motivated by his introversion or his high-mindedness—wasn’t a liability. But now that Obamamania has subsided, the president and his fund-raisers are discovering that they’re not exempt from the usual rules of what’s politely called “donor maintenance.” Some top-level 2008 backers complain about not being sought out for policy advice. Others carp that they haven’t been invited to any state dinners. Still others are bitter that after they donated big bucks for a fund-raiser they then had to miss, the Obama people wouldn’t allow them to cash in their chit to attend a different party.
The Obama campaign has belatedly gotten better at VIP treatment, even letting one big donor (the allegedly aggrieved Chicago megabundler Penny Pritzker) hitch a ride on Air Force One, a privilege usually reserved for members of Congress. Alas, given the sensitivities of the people they’re dealing with, it might take more than that. “I’ve heard from a lot of these guys that they find it tremendously ironic that they’re courting them now after treating them like garbage for two years,” says the politico. “People say, ‘We were never treated like this when Bill Clinton was president.’ ” Maybe the Obamas might want to look into dusting out the Lincoln Bedroom.