American Way: Mark McKinnon
12:30PM GMT 16 Mar 2013
Once, only nobles were granted an audience with the King.
In America, we've prided ourselves on abandoning those privileges of class some 237 years ago, following that little uprising in the 13 colonies.
And we again congratulated ourselves at 12:01 pm Eastern Time on January 20, 2009, just moments after Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States and as he committed to making his administration the most transparent and open in history.
But more than four years later it is time to ask questions. The most transparent administration ever? The most transparently political, yes. The most open government? If you have the money to buy access, yes.
Since last weekend, Mr and Mrs Regular Citizen have been denied the access people used to be granted to tour the White House, purportedly because of the clampdown on federal spending since the "sequester" that imposed cuts across the board.
These tours, most recently guided by volunteers though monitored by paid Secret Service staff, have been an American tradition since John and Abigail Adams, the first White House residents, personally hosted receptions for the public.
And their cancellation is an austerity measure that saves a pittance, while more frivolous taxpayer funding for items like the White House dog walker continues.
Meanwhile, noble Americans can buy time with the president for a suggested donation of $500,000 to his new campaign group, Organising for Action.
Yes, the announcement offering access to the president for cold, hard cash was made openly and with total transparency. But it was also made without shame.
It's the third version of Obama's original monster campaign machine, Obama for America, which then morphed into a re-election campaign machine, Organising for America, on the third day of his first term.
It has now re-launched again as Organising for Action (OFA) - a non-profit, tax-exempt group headed by his former campaign advisers. Apparently no longer "for America", the group might just as well be called Organising for Obama's Agenda.
Its mission: to support the president in his attempt to achieve enactment of gun control, environmental policies and immigration reform.
At the two-day kick-off event last week for the new OFA's founding summit, attended by 75 folks for the "bargain" rate of just $50,000, Obama at least acknowledged the concerns raised by others about the funding, purpose and influence of the organisation.
However, he brushed them aside. With greater humility than new Pope Francis, Obama said he prided himself on feeling no obligation in the past to the interests of the generous donors who made his election and re-election possible. Though paradoxically he also said he wanted "to make sure the voices of the people are actually heard in the debates that are going to be taking place". So, he'll take money to listen to the voices of the privileged, but not do their bidding?
May I humbly suggest he could hear more voices, more clearly if he mingled with the public he serves? Perhaps the White House could hold open tours for the public! Why has no one in his administration thought of that? And volunteers could manage those tours, to keep costs down!
But, of course, those are what have just been cancelled. Meanwhile, three calligraphers reportedly remain on staff. I suppose their services are needed for the special hand-lettered, gold-foiled invitations sent to the nobles who are willing to pay for an audience with the King.
OFA is a legal, tax-exempt advocacy organisation, established as a social welfare group under the rules of both the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Elections Commission. It can accept unlimited contributions, so long as it promotes the common good and does not primarily engage in electoral politics.
As it is not required to publicly disclose donors, OFA is actually one of those "shadowy" organisations Obama railed against as a candidate when he supported campaign finance reform.
In 2010 the Supreme Court made a controversial ruling known as Citizens United that allowed unlimited corporate and individual donations to so-called "super political action committees", which at least have to disclose their donors, and to social welfare organisations, which do not.
At the time, Obama loudly criticised the decision, saying: "That's one of the reasons I ran for president: because I believe so strongly that the voices of ordinary Americans were being drowned out by the clamour of a privileged few in Washington."
But then he reversed course, giving his blessing to a super PAC supporting his 2012 re-election, and now to OFA. What has changed?
Obama is looking to his legacy. And his eye is on the 2014 Congressional elections. If he can maintain his appeal among the masses and help Democrats win back a majority in the House of Representatives, while maintaining control of the Senate, there will be no stopping his agenda.
He explained the "grassroots" purpose of OFA like this: "If you have a senator or a congressman in a swing district who is prepared to take a tough vote... I want to make sure they feel supported and they know there are constituencies of theirs that agree with them, even if they may be getting a lot of pushback in that district."
Engaging voters is always a good thing. But the president should not charge for the privilege. If he will look out the Oval Office window beyond his own reflection, King Barack I will see the public he is meant to serve. He ought to invite them in.