Fundraiser in Chief

Kevin P. Casey / AP

Washington Sen. Patty Murray sure appreciated the effort. Or at least she should have, after President Obama made an Election Day stop in Seattle—the farthest major city from D.C. on the continental U.S.—simply to show some support for the folksy senator. She didn’t actually need the help, either. In the state’s primary last night, Murray won handily, besting her closest opponent, former state lawmaker Dino Rossi, by 12 points.

But Obama was in the neighborhood anyway, passing nearby on a cross-country tour this week to pad the pockets of Democrats hungry for funds as they head toward November. He started Monday with a speech in Wisconsin for gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett, then jetted to Los Angeles for a pair of glitzy fundraisers including one demanding $30,400 per couple that featured A-list celebrities like director Steven Spielberg and actor Taye Diggs. Before he heads back to Washington tonight, he’ll stump for Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland in Cleveland and then to an evening event in Miami to vouch for the Florida Democratic Party. In total, five states, 7,300 miles, nine fundraising events, and, his party hopes, millions of dollars in the bank.

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It’s something of a ritual: the president using the perks of the office to fill his party’s coffers and sling some mud at the other party. And it’s something of a ritual that the other party will complain the White House is squandering enormous globs of taxpayer money helping itself and its friends, rather than the country. The criticism is only half true; taxpayers don’t foot the bill entirely. Whenever the president travels somewhere just to help a candidate, that candidate’s campaign has to cover a large portion of the trip, calculated by a complex government formula that mostly covers the cost of chartering a first-class airliner.

But despite the uncovered costs, such as for security personnel and first-rate lodging, it’s been hard for Obama to say no to the opportunity to pander to the party faithful and collect some checks, especially because he’s so good at it. According to unofficial administration historian Mark Knoller (who doubles as CBS Radio White House correspondent), Obama has done 38 fundraisers this year—19 for the Democratic National Committee, two for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, six for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, and the rest for individual candidates.

Obama’s impact is unmistakable. Despite scores of polls saying his approval rating has dropped and that people have lost faith in his campaign promises, party loyalists will still drop big money for a chance to be in the same room as the sitting president, or his wife, who will be hitting the trail this fall to use her star power where her husband’s has diminished. “There’s no one who is more important in our efforts to inspire voters and raise resources than President Obama,” says Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the DNC. Most of Obama’s events for his party’s national committee have brought in about $1 million apiece, a figure no single Republican could reasonably come close to in a single night.

Money is one thing, but campaigning is another. Last month, the Christian Science Monitor explored the question of just how valuable Obama was on the campaign trail. With tepid support for a number of the president’s signature policies, many candidates preferred Obama the ATM rather than Obama the Campaign Cameo—the photographic evidence from which could be used to rally opposition. The Republican National Committee, eager not to let a party squabble go to waste, turned some Democrats’ stated reticence toward Obama into a animated campaign commercial featuring top Democrats pulling the inflatable slide on Air Force One to avoid the president visiting their states and districts.

Still, as strategic and helpful as Obama can be, it’s not all purely benevolent. The success of his presidency is very much aligned with the health, and size, of his party following the midterm elections. Wherever he can be useful between now and then, says the White House, there he’ll be.