White House defends Obama decision to address donors and volunteers of new political machine

Rachel Rose Hartman and Olivier Knox

Amid criticism of the president's new nonprofit advocacy group, Organizing for Action, and its ties to the president, the White House on Monday defended President Barack Obama's decision to address the group by seeking to distance it from the president.

"This group is trying to promote a policy agenda," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at Monday's briefing when questioned about the goals and actions of the group, which was born from the president's campaign committees.

OFA is "planning on coordinating with the White House, is it not?" NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd asked Carney.

"OFA, again, was set up to promote the president's public policy agenda," Carney said. He argued that OFA is not aiming to help the president in an electoral capacity—which would break campaign finance rules about nonprofits—and instead has a nonpartisan agenda.

The group will be spending money "on the American people's behalf," Carney said. The group was set up to allow for unlimited corporate, individual and union donations—something that has drawn criticism from watchdog groups.

Carney argued that the president's decision, first reported Monday, to speak to the group Wednesday night is no different than his decision to speak to the Democratic National Committee and other campaign groups. (But, of course, this isn't a campaign group.)

Carney used Monday's briefing to once again reject the accusation that OFA donors can pay for access to the president.

"Any notion, as we've talked about, that there's a price set for that—a meeting with the president—is absurd and wrong," Carney added, repeating the response he first issued two weeks ago following news reports suggesting OFA donors could pay for such access.

Obama’s speech, first reported Monday by Politico and confirmed to Yahoo News by an OFA official, will come as he wages pitched political battles on issues like immigration, gun violence and reducing the nation’s long-term deficits and debt. OFA’s role in those struggles has yet to be clearly determined, though the group’s core mission is to advance the president’s second-term agenda.

His remarks will be the highlight of a two-day OFA summit at a tony Washington hotel. Other speakers will include Jim Messina, who managed Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, former top White House adviser David Plouffe, and former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. Obama has broadly signaled that he aims to take action to battle climate change in his second term.

Among the subjects the group will tackle on Wednesday and Thursday is the challenge of recruiting and keeping volunteers—a harder task in a nonelection year. Portions of the two-day gathering will be open to reporters, the OFA official confirmed.

The organization recently announced in the face of public pressure that it will not accept corporate cash and will make public the list of donors who give more than $250. That came after a news report that people who gave $500,000 or more to OFA would get quarterly meetings with Obama—a report disputed by the White House.