Sen. Barack Obama's decision to reject public financing of his presidential run — and the spending limits that come with it — will give him a big financial advantage over Sen. John McCain this fall, but it may come at a political price.
Obama's stark abandonment of a pledge he repeatedly made during the Democratic primaries has dinged his reputation as a government reformer, and it clearly gave his critics ammunition to attack his character and paint him as a Democratic flip-flopper.
That flip-flopping image did serious damage to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., four years ago when the Democratic candidate impaled himself with his own quote on an Iraq spending bill, explaining, "I was for it before I was against it."
Obama, D-Ill., can expect some of his own words on his commitment to public financing of presidential campaigns to be tossed in his face in the coming months.
Obama Flip-Flops on Public Funds
For years Obama supported using public funds for campaigns to keep the big special-interest money out, and he was recorded more than once saying "I strongly support public financing."
On a questionaire by the good government group Common Cause, Obama wrote, "If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election."
And during an April 27 apperance on Fox News, Obama declared, "I have promised that I will sit down with John McCain and talk about can we preserve a public system."
Obama, who has shattered fundraising records, has tried to finesse the about-face by telling supporters that he needs more than the $89 million that would be allocated by the federal government so he can combat what he says will be Republican attacks on his character.
Obama on Thursday declared the public finance system "broken" and said that GOP operatives are masters as "gaming" the rules. So he is creating a new system of small donors to finance his campaign, stating, "You've fueled this campaign with donations of $5, $10, $20, whatever you can afford."
Nevertheless, the move has come with a political cost.
"We are disappointed in his not fulfilling his pledge," Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, told "Good Morning America" on Friday.
Rhetoric Doesn't Match Reality
A closer look at Obama's money-raising tactics, along with that of his Republican rival John McCain, show that not all of their rhetoric matches reality.
While Obama has generated an unprecedented outpouring of small donations from grassroots supporters, he also gets more than a third of his money from big donors who give the maximum of more than $2,000 apiece.
McCain, who will likely opt into the public finance system, has also long railed against the influence of big money in politics and co-authored the McCain-Feingold bill that was meant to curb it.
He has frequently singled out for particular scorn the machinations of lobbyists.
"We need to close the door firmly on corporate lobbyists," McCain has declared.
But McCain didn't close the door firmly on corporate lobbyists helping to run his campaign. Dozens have raised money for him and several helped run his campaign until McCain instituted a new policy banning current lobbyists.
And several former lobbyists are still at the helm of McCain's presidential campaign.