Obama machine hits some inaugural bumps

December 25, 2008|By Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger | Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger,Tribune Washington Bureau

From the announcement of his long-shot candidacy to management of the presidential transition over the past two months, Barack Obama's organization has rolled forward with seemingly flawless precision - including the biggest fundraising operation in U.S. political history.

But for the team that's trying to pull in more than $45 million to pay for the festivities at next month's historic inauguration, the process has had some uncharacteristically bumpy moments. Officials still expect to meet their budget and underwrite a colossal celebration that they say will be open to more people than many such events have been in the past.

Still, the organizers have come up against some unexpected hurdles. With less than a month to go, they're hurrying to add elements to the master calendar. They've told some supporters they might not get all the goodies they'd expected in exchange for big-bucks donations.

And they've scrambled to think up new ways to deal with unforeseen "market frenzy" - the insatiable appetite of wealthy supporters not just to attend but to buy themselves VIP status.

As many as 5 million people will squeeze around the Capitol and onto the National Mall for the Jan. 20 swearing-in. Most will contend with frigid weather, traffic jams, packed subway cars and long walks from distant staging areas - all for a fleeting glimpse of the new president.

Those making big-dollar donations, however, will be rewarded with exclusive tickets, up-front seating and invitations to fancy events - including a candle-lit, black-tie dinner with Obama and Vice President-elect Biden and hundreds of their most generous supporters.

Any supporters raising $300,000 or more will earn the title "trustee" and get four tickets to every special inaugural event on the schedule, along with seats to the swearing-in and parade, according to an inaugural committee document titled, "Finance Event Schedule" that lays out a series of events beginning on the Saturday before the inauguration.

Rewarding big-money donors with Inauguration Day favors is nothing new. But the challenge is especially difficult this time.

Many potential givers are experiencing donor fatigue after the long campaign, especially with the economy in a tailspin. And, in keeping with Obama's promise of high ethical standards, his canvassers must operate under a self-imposed limit of $50,000 per contribution from individuals, and a ban on any donations from corporations, unions and political action committees.

That means more donors were needed, and more enticements. The result has been some headaches for an Obama team that has run its fundraising operations with widely envied precision.

To begin with, planners may have thought too small when putting together events like the candle-light dinners. They had no trouble finding buyers for the high-priced tickets, but as seats filled up, some fundraisers have been told there might not be room for everyone who expected special treatment - not just Inaugural donors but major campaign fundraisers and political allies.

The demand for special treatment has been so great that the inauguration committee faced the possibility of well-heeled supporters being turned away from some of the most sought-after events - a fundraiser's nightmare. Many donors still don't know whether they will get tickets to coveted inaugural balls such as the one hosted by Obama's home state of Illinois.

The situation has reached the point that some fundraisers and donors are being told that they might actually not get the tickets and access they were promised.

"It's a market frenzy out there," said one fundraiser, who is bundling together money from several wealthy families and helping to coordinate their travel to the inauguration.

"There is frustration because individuals in some cases still do not know what they are getting for their donations."

The fundraiser, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the problems were "similar to the way it has been in inaugurations of the past - only more so. There is more demand than ever for access to special events, but the capacity is the same."

The inauguration budget four years ago was roughly the same as Obama's, but President Bush's organizers took contributions of up to $250,000 and accepted money and in-kind support from corporations and PACs. Donations poured in with relative ease from well-known companies with issues pending in Washington - such as Exxon Mobil, Occidental Petroleum and the Marriott Corp. - as industries took advantage of one of the last remaining opportunities to give directly to a president's cause.

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