President Obama's dinner Wednesday with deep-pocketed donors and officials from his re-election campaign continued his evolution from someone who condemns "business as usual in Washington" to one who embraces such tactics, says a growing chorus of critics.
Just blocks from the White House, Obama headlined an event for Organizing for Action, an advocacy group founded by former campaign aides and tasked with building support for the president's second-term initiatives. The invitation came with a $50,000 price tag.
"The politics of a lot of these issues are tough. And sometimes members [of Congress] are scared about making the right decisions," Obama told the group. "We are helping to build or sustain a network of citizens who have a voice in the critical debates that will be taking place."
As a candidate, Obama lamented the growing influence of money in politics -- even while raising record sums of money for both his presidential campaigns -- and vowed to pursue ambitious campaign finance laws. It's a pledge administration officials repeated this week, ahead of the president hobnobbing with an "independent" group whose sole goal is to raise money on Obama's behalf.
Some say that what Obama calls a grassroots movement is nothing more than influence peddling.
"Organizing for Action is an unprecedented entity that creates new opportunities for big donors and bundlers of large amounts to obtain corrupting influence over executive branch policies and decisions," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a watchdog organization. "OFA is also a terrible precedent for the future that if left in place will spread to members of Congress."
As they came under fire Wednesday, OFA leaders insisted they were an advocacy group and not tied to individuals.
"I want to say a word about what we aren't: We are not a partisan organization," said Jon Carson, a former White House official who now serves as OFA's executive director. "We are here to move this shared progressive agenda forward."
Added former Obama adviser David Plouffe, "This is something that should be celebrated, not criticized."
However, others see Obama's embrace of the group as the latest misstep for a president who has changed course on funding options for his political goals. Obama embraced a super-PAC launched by former aides during his re-election campaign despite repeatedly labeling such groups toxic to the political process. The types of corporate donations he spent years lambasting also bankrolled his second inauguration.
Even American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-founded organization which pumped money into Republican campaigns in 2012, dubbed the group "Organizing for Access" in a new video. And the White House has fought allegations in recent weeks that OFA offered quarterly briefings with the president to donors who gave half a million dollars to the group.
Critics point to Obama's own words as proof of how far he has shifted on the issue of money in politics.
"Don't let them hijack your agenda," Obama told a crowd at a 2010 campaign event. "The American people deserve to know who's trying to sway their elections. And you can't stand by and let special interests drown out the voices of the American people."
OFA claims to be an issue advocacy group but still controls Obama's email address and Facebook and Twitter pages.
Speakers at Wednesday's event, from which the press was mostly barred, included former White House and Obama campaign officials. No Republicans spoke at the gathering.
Even with all the focus on issues, OFA leaders promoted their primary goal: protecting Obama.
"For every lobbying group that puts a dollar on the air tearing down the president's agenda," said former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, "an OFA volunteer will mobilize across the country to counter that."