WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama dismissed criticism on Wednesday of a grassroots group that his former campaign team set in motion to advance his agenda and rejected concerns that the organization could give high-dollar donors undue influence over government policies.
Obama spoke to 75 people who attended a dinner on behalf of Organizing for Action, a nonprofit that will use private donations to promote his second-term agenda. Some paid $50,000 to attend the group's two-day "founders summit" this week.
Good-government groups have feared the organization could be a vehicle for wealthy donors to gain access to the president and influence government policies and decisions.
Obama said he wanted Organizing for Action to develop a network of citizens across the country to help press Congress on priorities of his second term like gun control, an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws and reducing the threat of climate change.
"I think here in Washington this idea has been viewed with suspicion, and 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,'" Obama said.
Instead, he wants to make sure that the "voices of ordinary people are heard in the debates that are going to be taking place."
Looking out at a crowd that included Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, Obama said people who have been key backers of his presidential campaigns in the past have not asked him for favors.
"One of the things I'm proudest of during the course of two campaigns where we raised an awful lot of money is that the people who got involved didn't ask me for stuff, except to be true to my vision and true to our agenda," Obama said.
The group's founders, former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina and former White House senior adviser David Plouffe, reiterated that Organizing for Action is about promoting the president's concerns, not electing candidates.
Donor fatigue from last year's long campaign may affect contributions to the group, at least for a while. Elections drive most donor dollars and the next one is not until 2014.
The group, founded in January, finds itself under renewed criticism that it will simply become a conduit for big-money contributors to get the ear of the president.
"It is operating as an arm of the presidency and it's funded by private money including large contributions and bundlers raising large amounts," said Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, a campaign finance reform group.
"So this private funding arm tied to the president creates opportunities for donors to obtain corrupting influence over government policies and decisions," Wertheimer said. "This is an unacceptable entity. It's almost like outsourcing a portion of the presidency."
An editorial in USA Today on Wednesday had a similarly critical take on Organizing for Action, saying Obama has long said he would like to limit the influence of money on politics but that his group "epitomizes just about everything he says he is against."
Those at the St. Regis Hotel summit took issue with the charge. "I don't think the president will sell access. He doesn't have to. He was reelected by a great majority of the people," said Marsha Fishman of Dallas, a volunteer since Obama first ran for president in 2008.
She said the group will organize in neighborhoods across the country to support Obama's proposals by staging rallies, writing letters to the editor and calling members of Congress.
Editing by Fred Barbash, Xavier Briand and Prudence Crowther