President Obama's voice echoed in the majestic rotunda of the Franklin Institute as he lit into the Republicans with fierce urgency.
"We want to move forward and make sure that elections aren't just about $10 million checks being written by folks who have vested interests in maintaining the status quo," Obama said, to applause. "The other side, they don't have any new ideas. . . . What they do have is, they'll have $500 million worth of negative ads."
In a note of irony common to modern politics, Obama was in the process of raising campaign cash while decrying its corrosive effects. Three events in the Center City science museum raised nearly $2 million Tuesday night for the president's reelection effort and Democratic committees supporting it.
And that was just after three similar events in Baltimore; by Thursday, Obama was at a star-studded gathering of donors in actress Sarah Jessica Parker's Manhattan home. The insurgent candidate of 2008 who promised to change our politics is now outpacing his modern predecessors in the amount of time raising money.
The people standing in front of the president beneath a marble statue of Benjamin Franklin had paid $250 to $2,500 to hear a fired-up stump speech. Meanwhile, in the Fels Planetarium, some 90 people waited for Obama to address them at a $10,000-a-ticket dinner. And earlier, about 15 people who had each pledged to raise or donate $40,000 got to sit at a table and talk privately with the president for 45 minutes.
"I was pleasantly surprised by the level of enthusiasm and the seriousness with which our donor base took this," said lawyer Kenneth M. Jarin, a cochairman of Obama's 2012 finance committee in Pennsylvania, who helped sell tickets. "They know what's at stake. People understand how much money is being spent by the other side, and that our side has to step up."
But all the hard work of Obama supporters in the months leading up to the Philadelphia events, overseen by Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen, seemed puny the next day - when casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson gave $10 million to Restore Our Future, a "super PAC" helping Republican Mitt Romney.
Court and regulatory decisions in the last few years have led to unprecedented levels of money as corporations and wealthy individuals pledge to spend hundreds of millions, mostly in support of Republican candidates.
The amount of time presidents spend asking for cash has risen sharply in recent decades, according to Brendan Doherty, a political scientist at the Naval Academy and author of The Rise of the President's Permanent Campaign, to be published in July.
Obama has attended more fund-raising events in the second half of his first term than any of the last six presidents - 166 such events through Friday. In two years before Ronald Reagan's 1984 reelection, Reagan attended just three fund-raisers for the Republican National Committee, zero for his own campaign. Bill Clinton, once lionized and derided for his fund-raising prowess, attended 70 campaign-finance events in 1995 and 1996, when he was reelected.
Now, in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, the sums flying around are enormous. Adelson and his wife have given $35 million this year, mostly to a super PAC that backed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's presidential run.
"It's the Wild West, an entirely different dimension," said Larry Makinson, former head of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "The bottom line is, it magnifies the power of the 1 percent who've got all the money."
In a sense, Obama kicked off the latest installment of the political arms race in 2008 when he chose to spurn public financing for his campaign, Makinson said. Obama raised about $750 million and swamped the GOP.
This time, Obama got ahead of Romney, out-raising him $197 million to $87 million by March 31. But Romney's donations have outpaced the Democrats since he sewed up the GOP nomination. And that doesn't count super PACs' funds, where Republicans dominate.
People raising cash for Obama here say it is a little harder than four years ago, when the campaign to elect the first black president felt like a movement; one dinner at Cohen's home that year, for instance, raised $6 million. The weak economy has also hurt.
Still, enough donors are eager and able to write big checks. Among those at the $40,000 event, according to several attendees: Jarin; former State Sen. Connie Williams of Montgomery County; Cohen and his wife, lawyer Rhonda Cohen; developer Ron Rubin; Mark Alderman, a lawyer and cochair of Obama's state fund-raising committee; Joseph and Marie Field, who founded the radio broadcasting giant Entercom; and Richard Horowitz, president of RAF Industries, a Jenkintown private-equity firm.
Businesswoman Marsha Perelman attended the $10,000 dinner. She thinks Obama's approach to government, promising investment in education and other public goods, will be better "in the long run" for business than Romney's promises to slash regulations, government, and taxes.
As is customary, a few reporters were ushered in to record Obama's opening remarks. Then the press was shooed away as the president said he'd take questions.
Perelman, who chairs the Franklin Institute board, said Obama didn't drop any bombshells in the planetarium dinner, but it was still revealing.
"One of the questions asked referred to how difficult it is to get the president's message across," Perelman said. "He made a terrific reference to how hard it is to cut through a news cycle that is a nanosecond long: During the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy did not announce the invasion until 13 days later. He had time to figure out what happened, and 70 percent of the nation tuned in when he went on television.
"President Obama said that if that happened today, within two minutes somebody would have tweeted about it. And the highest audience he ever gets for a speech, the State of the Union, is 10 percent of the population."