2012 campaign

Obama's Silencing His Donors' Phones. What's He Hiding?


Obama's Silencing His Donors' Phones. What's He Hiding?

Illustration by 731

You can imagine the number of times every day that the president of the United States and his closest aides discuss topics that aren’t fit for public consumption. Issues involving national security, say, or the movement of our troops overseas. And you’re probably OK with that. Most rational Americans accept that a certain level of secrecy at the White House is perfectly reasonable—in fact required—to conduct the nation’s business.

But do the same rules apply when you’re auditioning for the job?

Bloomberg News’ Kate Andersen Brower and Julie Bykowicz hinted at that question in a story this week that chronicled how hard President Obama and Mitt Romney are working to keep what they say to donors secret from the rest of the public that they’re hoping will cast votes for them come November. As Brower and Bykowicz recounted:

“Now campaign workers (for Obama) gather up donors’ mobile phones in plastic bags at some fundraisers, including one held May 14 at the New York home of the Blackstone Group’s president and chief operating officer, Tony James.”

Let’s break that down: On the same day that his campaign unleashed a brutal media blitz attacking Romney’s background in private equity, the president showed up for a fundraiser hosted by one of the country’s most successful private equity executives. Before the president delivered his remarks, his staffers didn’t ask people to turn their cell phones off. They confiscated the phones of the people who had paid $35,800 apiece for the privilege. (Logistical question: Is there a phone valet? This sounds complicated.) That way nobody could Facebook or tweet or, presumably worse, videotape the president’s statements for a public airing.

This wasn’t a one-off. It was one fundraiser among others where the handlers enforced the check-your-phone-at-the-door policy.

Brower and Bykowicz also reported that “at a March 30 fundraiser, as the press was being ushered out of earshot at Maine’s Portland Museum of Art, Obama asked his 130 supporters in attendance not to post any video of their private discussion on YouTube.”

Obama’s handlers are apparently hoping to avoid a repeat of a dustup in 2008. That year, as Obama and Hillary Clinton were duking it out for the Democratic nomination, a donor at a San Francisco fundraiser taped Obama saying that small-town voters who had lost their jobs were “bitter,” and had no other way to deal with their anger than to “cling to guns or religion”—and then released the tape to a news organization that wasn’t allowed into the event.

That the president thinks his donors can’t be trusted with their phones has to offend them, whether they’re giving $35 or $35,000, though surely there are people who accept the terms as a condition of entering a special club. It’s hard not to see how that offends everyone else. Running for president isn’t about hosting a so-called private discussion. What could the president possibly have to tell a crowd of Wall Street executives that isn’t fit for the rest of us?

Hinman is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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