In their private question-and-answer session, Obama let his guard down and eventually shared some thoughts that revealed more about his view of American politics than perhaps anything he said publicly during the entire campaign. Election Day was still more than eight months away. But Obama, in a previously unreported riff, signaled surrender on one of the fights that had drawn him to politics in the first place: the effort to limit the flow of big money. It was a remarkable concession, one that would have stunned the campaign volunteers who believed so deeply in his promise to change the way politics works. It wasn’t just that he was admitting that his own election prospects would be disproportionately influenced by super-rich donors like those he was addressing. He had already done that 11 days earlier, when he blessed a so-called super PAC collecting million-dollar checks to boost his reelection. What really distinguished his remarks to Gates and company from his carefully calibrated official position was the admission that the grassroots, people-powered politics he had long glorified might never again trump the swelling political buying power of the very richest donors.
“You now have the potential of 200 people deciding who ends up being elected president every single time,” Obama told the group in response to a question about the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in a case called Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which gutted campaign finance restrictions and marked the beginning of a new big-money era in American politics.
Unless things changed dramatically, Obama predicted, “I may be the last presidential candidate who could win the way I won, which was coming out without a lot of special-interest support, without a handful of big corporate supporters, who was able to mobilize and had the time and the space to mobilize a grassroots effort, and then eventually got a lot of big donors, but started off small and was able to build. I think the capacity for somebody to do that is going to be much harder.” He continued, “In this election, I will be able to, hopefully, match whatever check the Koch brothers want to write,” referring to the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. “But I’m an incumbent president who already had this huge network of support all across the country and millions of donors. I’m not sure that the next candidate after me is going to be able to compete in that same way.”
Obama turned to face Gates, who stood awkwardly, his hands stuffed in his suit pants pockets. “And at that point, you genuinely have a situation where 10 people—hey, you know, Bill could write a check.” And, Obama pointed out, it wasn’t just Gates, whose fortune, then estimated at $61 billion, Democrats had been hoping to tap in a big way. “Actually, there are probably five or six people in this room,” Obama said, gesturing to Ballmer and others, as nervous laughter spread through the crowd. Obama plowed ahead insistently, eyebrows raised, his voice rising with agitation as he stepped toward the donors. “I mean, there are five or six people in this room tonight that could simply make a decision—this will be the next president—and probably at least get a nomination, if ultimately the person didn’t win. And that’s not the way things are supposed to work.”
The leader of the free world—the man who had built so much of his identity around the idea that average people could band together to change the world, the politician who once boldly declared that it was time to take government back from “the cynics, and the lobbyists, and the special interests who’ve turned our government into a game only they can afford to play”—had become one of the biggest cynics of all. Here he was, freely admitting that American politics had fundamentally changed in a way that made it, at the highest levels, a game for the ultra-rich. And he was right.