President Barack Obama's aggressive inaugural fundraising -- he's reversed the ban on corporate donors, lifted the lid on contributions and is soliciting up to $1 million for various VIP ticket packages -- raises an intriguing question: What's he planning to do with all the money? After all, the Presidential Inaugural Committee already has radically downsized the number of official balls.
The options are limitless. A number of recent presidential inaugural committess have acknowledged -- either wittingly or not -- ending up with a surplus of funds. There are no rules limiting how the money can be used. The 2013 Inaugural Committee, like the ones before it, is not required to disclose its spending to the Federal Election Commission – only the names of those who donated (a revelation that will come a lot later than it did four years ago).
Despite the lack of public disclosure, there have been a trail of clues about where the money ends up. If past practice is any indication, the 2013 inaugural party leftovers may end up going to Obama’s future presidential library. That project, which could end up costing $500 million, houses presidential papers and serves as a home base for presidents after they leave office. No foundation yet exists to raise money for the library, but the University of Chicago and University of Hawaii -- located in Obama's adopted state and home state -- are vying to host his library already, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Paying for presidential libraries has become another fundraising challenge for the nation's chief executives -- and another opportunity for deep-pocketed donors to ingratiate themselves. Because the libraries were becoming increasingly elaborate and more expensive to maintain, Congress passed a law in 2008 increasing the endowment that former presidents must provide to help the National Archives and Records Administration maintain their records. Obama will be the first president affected by the new, higher threshold.
Democratic fundraisers told the Los Angeles Times that the committee wants to raise about $50 million, although aides have not answered questions about this year's budget or if it has access to surplus funds from 2009. That year, the committee raised a record-breaking $53.2 million but the budget was only $45 million, the Boston Globe reported, meaning there could be a surplus of around $8 million. An aide with the 2013 Obama inaugural committee who asked not to be identified refused to comment on where a surplus might go, noting that it's still not certain there will be any.
Still, Obama's effort to drum up inaugural cash appears unprecedented: Four years ago, he limited donations to $50,000, down from the $250,000 ceiling that his predecessor, former president George W. Bush, set on contributions to his 2005 inaugural.
Obama would not be the first president to use his inaugural funds to bolster his post-presidential legacy.
President Clinton’s inaugural committee gave between $1 million and $5 million to the William J. Clinton Foundation, which funded the construction of his library and musuem in Little Rock, Ark. That giving was only disclosed after Hillary Clinton was nominated as Secretary of State, when the foundation agreed to report its donors to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest with the Obama administration.
In contrast, none of George H.W. Bush’s inauguration funds went towards his library, located at Texas A&M University, said its former executive director Don Wilson, who is also a former Archivist of the United States. “It never even came up. I probably should have thought about.”
“You’d have to make it clear, ethically, if there were funds leftover, we would use them,” Wilson said.
Some donors may not be happy if they knew their money went elsewhere, he added. He called it “a pretty strong ethic in fundraising.”
Instead, the $2 million in leftover funds from President H.W. Bush’s inaugural went to the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, according to Penne Korth Peacock, the inaugural co-chair who became the Ambassador to Mauritius during the elder Bush’s presidency. That inauguration cost $30 million, a similar cost to Clinton's two inaugurations.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center, which includes a museum, think tank and library and is set to open in April, has raised more than $400 million but has not disclosed its funders. Its president, Mark Langdale, has said the donors that do not want to stay anonymous will be unveiled when the center opens. A message left with Langdale was not returned.
Obama's 2013 inaugural committee is revealing less about its donors this year than it did in 2009, when it began issuing a regularly-updated list of donors, along the amounts of their contributions, nearly two months before the released the amounts each contributor donated.
Aides maintain a commitment to transparency; committee spokesman Cameron French said “all names of donors will be posted to a regularly updated website.” But the dollar amounts of their contributions won't be available until April, when the presidential inaugural committee is required to deliver an accounting to the FEC.
All that’s known is that some deep-pocketed companies like AT&T and Microsoft and millionaire super PAC donors like Barbara Stiefel, Amy P. Goldman and Irwin Jacobs have chipped in. The list includes everyone who has donated at least $200.
(Photo: Robert A.M. Stern Architects)