Under scrutiny, Obama addresses former campaign group

President Obama speaks to the Organizing for Action dinner on March 13, 2013 at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, D.C. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

After a trip to Capitol Hill to reach out to House Republicans, and amid criticism from campaign finance watchdogs, President Obama took the opportunity at his second political outreach event of the day - a speech to about 60 donors and former campaign staffers - to explain his recent charm offensive.

"The truth of the matter is all I've been doing is just calling up folks and trying to see if we can break through some of the gobbledygook of our politics here," he said at a high-end hotel near the White House. "We've got to get members of Congress involved in these discussions, not just leadership, because I think a lot of them feel as if they don't have the opportunity to break out of some of this partisan gridlock."

The president spoke on the first night of a two-day summit for Organizing for Action, the nonprofit group that grew out of Mr. Obama's reelection campaign organization, and is now focused on advocating for and implementing the president's agenda.

Of his recent outreach, he also said he believes there's a "genuine desire" among members of Congress to compromise, but also a hesitancy.

"I think there's a weariness among membership in the Senate and the House about this constant grind day-in, day-out of argument and crises instead of productivity and movement forward," he said, "the politics of a lot of these issues are tough. And members sometimes are scared about making the right decisions."

Still, Mr. Obama remarked that he felt that already in his second term, he feels there has been, and will continue to be, progress on immigration, gun violence and taxes. A potential, he said, that was palpable during both his Inaugural and State of the Union addresses.

"Some people remarked that I had a little more pep in my step in the Inauguration and in the State of the Union and, I have to tell you it wasn't because I was off the campaign trail...the reason was I felt like this is a vision that, if we can get it implemented, really would allow America to take off."

He asked Organizing for Action attendees to join in that effort - not just by lobbying Congress but by reaching out to members of their own communities. He asked them to help him avoid the "mistake" he said, was made in 2008 -- when "some of that energy just kind of dissipated and we were only playing an inside game."

Mr. Obama's appearance at the summit comes amid recent allegations that high-paying donors were being promised the opportunity to meet the president at the White House.

"Organizing for Action is a mistake by President Obama that he should correct," Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said in a statement today. "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."

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney pointed out Monday that OFA, as a 501(c)4 nonprofit political group, is a "separate organization," not run by the White House. However, watchdog groups have raised concerns that as the president's former campaign arm being run by former White House and campaign officials, the group is tied too closely to the current White House. And, watchdogs add, as a 501(c)4, the group is now not bound by campaign fundraising caps and can raise unlimited amounts of money.

"Corporations and billionaires can write checks of any size, aware that they are giving to a group with close ties to the White House, one that is busily promoting President Obama's agenda," The New York Times editorial board wrote on March 3. "And now that this White House has torn down the last wall between its needs and those of special interests, others in the future will undoubtedly do the same."

Mr. Obama responded to that criticism tonight and sought to clarify the organization's mission.

"People have been puzzled about what it is that we're trying to do because the usual idea is: well this must just be a mechanism to try to win the next election in 2014. And what we've tried to explain to people is, is that, no I actually just want to govern. At least for a couple of years," he said.

While he says wants the organization to focus on policy for now, he didn't close the on the existence of Organizing for Action beyond 2016.

"What we want is to make sure that the voices of the people who put me here continue to be heard. That they're not just heard during election time, that they're not just heard in terms of dollar solicitations, that we are helping to build or sustain a network of citizens who have a voice in the most critical debates that are going to be taking place over the next year, year and a half, and if it works, potentially beyond."

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