President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign aired its first major television advertisement this week, buying $2 million worth of airtime in six critical swing states. The ad is a direct response to Americans for Prosperity, the conservative Super PAC funded by the billionaire Koch brothers that recently launched a national TV spot of its own blasting Obama for his green energy policy.
The rollout comes in the middle of a busy political week: The president was in New York Thursday raising money, the Republicans in South Carolina vote on Saturday, and the State of the Union Address is on Tuesday. By focusing on attacks funded by oil industry titans, the ad attempts to channel public concern about the consequences of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision handed down two years ago tomorrow that opened the floodgates for groups like Americans For Prosperity to raise unlimited campaign funds from anonymous donors. (They dumped some $40 million into the midterm elections that brought the Tea Party to power in Congress, and their current ad buy is estimated at over $6 million.)
The Obama ad, which is 30 seconds long and features a conventional mix of pictures of the president interspersed with video of wind turbines, is running in Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The narrator casts doubt on claims about the White House’s involvement with the now-bankrupt green energy company Solyndra, warns of “secretive billionaires attacking President Obama,” touts new ethics reforms, and points out, “For the first time in 13 years, our dependence on foreign oil is below 50 percent.” (Watch the ad below).
The attack on the president that elicited so fierce a response was actually just the latest in a TV campaign begun in November by Americans for Prosperity to keep the Solyndra issue in the news. A senior Obama campaign official told The National Memo that not every Super PAC ad will warrant a response, but third-party attacks fueled by oil money are rather low-hanging fruit. In 2008, Obama consistently went after Republican nominee John McCain for proposing “$4 billion in tax breaks to oil companies” — and the oil emphasis here suggests the campaign thinks it can revive a tactic that worked for them in the past, tarring attacks on the president as corrupted by oil money.
The TV campaign also coincides with widespread efforts by the Obama team to shore up the president’s political standing, which despite the Republican primary circus, still compares unfavorably with the last two presidents who won re-election. A Pew poll released Thursday afternoon puts the president’s job approval rating at 44 percent; George W. Bush began 2004 with 56 percent approval and Bill Clinton entered his re-election year with exactly 50 percent of the public approving of his performance.
When the White House scuttled the Keystone XL pipeline, environmental activists — some of whom are wealthy liberal donors who had been waiting for the president to side with them on their top issue — cheered. Also this week, the president came out against SOPA, the anti-piracy Internet legislation that is facing a massive populist backlash from both the Tea Party and tech giants like Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook.
Even Obama’s more conservative supporters like Montana Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who supported the Keystone pipeline, were evidently pleased with how he handled it, laying the blame squarely at the feet of the GOP in a show of election-year solidarity.
“As chief executive of Montana, if they ask me to approve of a pipeline with an incomplete application, I would have to reject it and I am the biggest proponent of this pipeline in America,” Schweitzer said on MSNBC early Thursday afternoon. “These jokers in Congress that are trying to force the president to approve of an incomplete application are just making mischief. They’re not helping to us develop energy.”
Speaking to The National Memo later Thursday, Schweitzer praised Obama’s record on green jobs and expanded on his critique of the Republicans setting the agenda in Washington.
“They demanded to add this language [to an earlier funding bill] that the president must approve of the Keystone pipeline even before TransCanada knew the route. That’s politics: they’re asking pigs to fly. Pigs don’t fly. I know it and you know it, but members of Congress…”
Obama’s Manhattan visit included a private meeting with Jewish leaders, an event at director Spike Lee’s house, and a fundraiser at the Apollo theater featuring performances by Al Green and Gladys Knight. His campaign recently announced that it raised $42 million in the last three months of 2011, matching George W. Bush’s numbers for the same period in 2003.
“We had to do something about our oil addiction,” Obama said during his speech at the Apollo before detailing increased fuel efficiency standards, his administration’s student loan reforms, and the benefits of the health care bill. “That’s what change is.”
In his State of the Union, the president could well speak to the new environment of unregulated campaign finance, a year after he made headlines for openly criticizing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision with the justices seated before him. The Super PAC madness is one of the few topics on which the president was aggressively partisan before it became a blockbuster political issue. He’ll follow the speech with a three-day, five-state tour that includes Nevada, Colorado, and Iowa, states Bush won in 2004 that Obama carried when he was elected just over three years ago.