Obama's Big Moneymen

by Noam Scheiber | August 6, 2008

The Times has a piece today about Obama's big donors, clearly an issue worth exploring. Yes, it's impressive that almost half his fundraising haul has come from people who've contributed $200 or less (versus only a quarter for McCain). But that still leaves the other half--which, when you've raised almost $300 million, is a lot of money.

That said, the timing of the piece is a little strange in light of this paragraph toward the end:

Donations in June, the latest month for which Mr. Obama has disclosed his donors to the Federal Election Commission, illustrate the double-barreled nature of the campaign’s fund-raising. Mr. Obama brought in nearly $31 million in contributions of less than $200, his best month for small donations. But he also collected more than $12 million in contributions of $1,000 or more, the most since the first half of 2007.

Thirty-one million out of some $52 million raised in June is pretty damn impressive and suggests the trend line is moving in the right direction. Again, it doesn't exactly undercut the piece--the absolute numbers from big donors are still staggering. But, when push comes to shove, it's easier to ignore big donors if most of your money comes from other sources, as is increasingly the case for Obama.

The only thing that truly worries me about the Obama donor base is the potential influence of finance types:

Hedge-fund executives, for example, have bundled large sums for Mr. Obama at a time when their industry has been looking to increase its clout in Washington.

Kenneth C. Griffin, chief executive officer of Citadel Investment Group in Chicago, has collected more than $50,000 for Mr. Obama. But Mr. Griffin, whose $1.5 billion in income in 2007 made him one of the country’s highest-paid hedge-fund executives, has given generously over the years to Republicans as well, and he recently helped to hold a fund-raiser for Mr. McCain. Citadel has spent more than $1.1 million, dating back to 2007, in lobbying against higher tax rates for hedge-fund gains. (Mr. Obama has supported the higher tax rates.)

Similarly, Paul Tudor Jones, a billionaire hedge-fund manager from Connecticut, has raised more than $100,000 for Mr. Obama. But he also gave to Mr. McCain, to Rudolph W. Giuliani and to Mitt Romney. Mr. Jones, who has given more than $900,000 over the last decade to federal candidates and political organizations, helped form a trade association that has fought hedge-fund regulation.

The public--and, more importantly from where I sit, economists and economic-policy wonks--is increasingly moving away from the hedge-fund manager's view of the world. (Which favors financial market deregulation above all, but also garden variety neoliberalism--balanced budgets, unrestricted capital flows, free trade, etc.) At the same time, some of Obama's most influential moneymen are pushing toward it. I'm not saying that dictates where Obama ends up on these questions if elected. As I say above, there are reasons to believe he'll resist the pressure. But, as Obama himself concedes in The Audacity of Hope, the effect of spending a lot of time with the titans of finance can be subtle and unconscious. It merits some vigilance at the very least.

--Noam Scheiber

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