President Barack Obama, with massive midterm losses looming and his presidency potentially paralyzed as a result, has made the startling claim that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was accepting foreign donations to launch a campaign against him, a charge that even the NY Times – an enthusiatic Obama supporter – described as "groundless."
Having relied on the claim of one blog, the president echoed the charge at a Maryland political rally: "So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections," he said," and they won't tell you where the money for their ads come from."
Tom Donahue, president of the Chamber, immediately denied the accusation, explaining that strict accounting procedures keep foreign and domestic contributions separate. Remarkably, denunciation of the president's claims spanned the political spectrum with some liberals suggesting the president "went too far" in the direction of stifling dissent; and David Axelrod, the president's senior advisor, conceded that the administration had no evidence to support the president's claim.
Nonetheless, Axelrod and the president stuck to their guns by suggesting the Chamber "may have" violated U.S. laws. Axelrod asked, "do you have any evidence it is not [true]?"
Overlooked by most members of the press corps were the questionable contributions to the Obama campaign on foreign credit cards, a claim that had more than a semblance of hearsay.
It seems that the president is trying find a political argument wthat has traction. Allegations against the Chamber fall into the category of a populist denunciation of big business, even though Democratic operatives are assuring job-generating corporations they are on their side, and reciients of bailouts posted record bonuses this year.
With Senator Al Frankin calling for a Federal Election Commission probe, a campaign is being launched despite the lack of evidence. The Democratic National Committee released an ad castigating the Chamber as "shills for big business." Of course, the purpose of the Chamber -- what it was organized to do -- is to represent business interests.
The underlying issue, the one that has a chilling effect on campaigns, is the unleashing of government power to silence political opponents.
By any standard, this presidential claim is an abuse of power that should be condemned by every member of the media.
President Obama insists through indirect assertions that "you don't know. It could be the oil industry. It could be the insurance industry. It could even be foreign owned corporations. You don't know because they don't have to disclose." Indeed since you don't know, it could be the tooth fairy. This is an example of the Cicero gambit: As you do not have any facts on which to rely, make speculative arguments especially with reference to unpopular entities such as the oil and insurance industries.
The Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case allows organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce to advertise for and against candidates of their choice and to accept anonymous donations in order to do so. President Obama indicated he does not support the Court's decision, but like it or not, it is the law of the land.
The fact that the questionable claims have become an issue may be an effort to shift concern from jobs and the precarious nature of the economy to campaign practices. But without evidence, and with the arrogant display of political power, this stratagem has backfired on the president and the Democratic Party.
Can the president dig his way out of this matter before November and convince voters that he will not abuse the power of this office?
On election day the answer will be clear.
Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and author of the book Decline and Revival in Higher Education (Transaction Publishers).