Obama and Blagojevich
It’s safe to say that the arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges is inconvenient for President-Elect Barack Obama. NYT yesterday ran a longish piece headlined “Scandal is an Early Test for Obama Team.”
Exactly what role he or his team played will be a focus of intense scrutiny in the weeks to come after the arrest of Mr. Blagojevich on accusations that he was plotting to trade or sell the Senate appointment. In that sense, the furor could be the first test of the Obama team’s ability to manage a growing scandal in an era when intense media scrutiny and partisan attack machinery can escalate any flap into a serious political problem.
Mr. Obama said Tuesday that he had never spoken with the governor about the seat, and prosecutors have not implicated Mr. Obama or his advisers. At the same time, Mr. Obama’s team has declined for two days to answer questions about what discussions they had about the seat and whether intermediaries had any contacts with Mr. Blagojevich’s advisers.
Republicans have raised questions about Mr. Obama’s refusal to say more and about his past ties with the main characters. Even if Mr. Obama remains untouched by the investigation, it shines a light on the corrupt politics of the state he emerged from and takes attention away from the agenda of change he would rather emphasize.
In a piece called “Obama Was Mute on Illinois Corruption,” WSJ columnist John Fund lays out the connections between Obama and the Chicago Machine:
What remains to be seen is whether this episode will put an end to what Chicago Tribune political columnist John Kass calls the national media’s “almost willful” fantasy that Mr. Obama and Chicago’s political culture have little to do with each other. Mr. Kass notes that the media devoted a lot more time and energy to investigating the inner workings of Sarah Palin’s Wasilla, Alaska, than it has looking at Mr. Obama’s Chicago connections.
Mr. Obama has an ambiguous reputation among those trying to clean up Illinois politics. “We have a sick political culture, and that’s the environment Barack Obama came from,” Jay Stewart, executive director of the Chicago Better Government Association, told ABC News months ago. Though Mr. Obama did support ethics reforms as a state senator, Mr. Stewart noted that he’s “been noticeably silent on the issue of corruption here in his home state including, at this point, mostly Democratic politicians.”
One reason for Mr. Obama’s reticence may be his close relationship with the powerful Illinois senate president Emil Jones. Mr. Jones was a force in Mr. Obama’s rise. In 2003, the two men talked about the state’s soon-to-be vacant U.S. Senate seat. As Mr. Jones has recounted the conversation, Mr. Obama told him “You can make the next U.S. senator.” Mr. Jones replied, “Got anybody in mind?” “Yes,” Mr. Obama said. “Me.”
In 2002, Mr. Obama turned up to help Mr. Blagojevich, a staunch ally of Mr. Jones, win the governor’s mansion. Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s incoming White House chief of staff, told The New Yorker earlier this year that six years ago he and Mr. Obama “participated in a small group that met weekly when Rod was running for governor. We basically laid out the general election, Barack and I and these two [other participants].”
Writing in Politico, Kenneth Vogel and Carrie Budoff Brown offer up “7 Blago questions for Obama.”
1 — “Did you communicate directly or indirectly with Blagojevich about picking your replacement in the U.S. Senate?”
2 — “Why didn’t you or someone on your team correct your close adviser David Axelrod when he said you had spoken to Blagojevich about picking your replacement?”
3. “When did you learn the investigation involved Blagojevich’s alleged efforts to ‘sell’ your Senate seat, or of the governor’s impending arrest?”
4 — “Did you or anyone close to you contact the FBI or U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald about Blagojevich’s alleged efforts to sell your Senate seat to the highest bidder?”
5 — “Did federal investigators interview you or anyone close to you in the investigation?”
6 — “When did you and Blagojevich last speak and about what?”
7 — “Do you regret supporting Blagojevich?”
At this juncture, there’s no evidence or reason to think Obama did anything wrong. The most damning suggestion is that Obama had reason, beyond press accounts, to think Blagojevich was dirty and remained silent. Otherwise, we’ve got mere guilt by association: they were part of the same political machine. That’s mighty thin gruel.
Dave Schuler, Alex Knapp and I talked about the scandal for the first 40 minutes or so of last night’s edition of OTB Radio, “Blagojevich, Obama, and the Return of Chicago Politics“. Dave, the Chicagoan, is the hardest on Obama of the three.
Photo credit: Cleveland.com