The breathtaking scope of Tuesday’s Illinois Senate scandal presents President-elect Barack Obama with a direct and immediate test of leadership.
Between the criminal charges lodged against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the questions raised by the conduct of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Obama must decide how bluntly — and how personally — to raise his voice against real-life allegations that epitomize what he has called “decades of broken politics in Washington.”
It’s hard to imagine a timelier moment, or a more compelling convergence of circumstances, for Obama to signal the seriousness of his promise to reform the way Washington goes about its business.
The scandal’s Chicago angle, the jaw-dropping nature of Blagojevich’s alleged deal making over the president-elect’s newly vacant Senate seat, and the prospect of an ethically tainted senior Democrat shepherding a key part of Obama’s agenda — they all suggest Obama can hardly avoid speaking directly on the question of a debauched culture.
In this case, however, he’d be raising his voice against people he knows, who have supported him and vice versa.
“Within hours he’s got to make a public statement,” said Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause and a former Democratic congressman. “Obama should look right into the camera and say the process should move forward, that he had no knowledge of the case but that this is a wake-up call for all his new appointments to serve the public trust.”
There is some precedent for a newly elected president to make a dramatic gesture designed to underscore a break with past convention and the onset of a new way of thinking.
Obama faces the kind of moment that John F. Kennedy spoke to when, as president-elect in January 1961, he delivered his “City Upon a Hill” speech to the Massachusetts statehouse. In the address, Kennedy acknowledged that his success or failure would be measured by whether his administration had “the courage to stand up, when necessary, to one’s associates” and whether it was “compromised by no private obligation or aim, but devoted solely to serving the public good and the national interest.”
Abner Mikva, a former anti-machine Chicago congressman and federal judge who has been an Obama mentor, said Obama should indicate that he finds the governor’s conduct “reprehensible,” then defer to the judicial system to determine guilt or innocence.
“He was for ethics reform before this and will be for it after this,” Mikva said, suggesting that the president-elect not simply seize upon the Blagojevich case but rather use it to urge reform “in all branches of government, federal and state.”
Obama’s transition team, which has not been implicated in the Illinois governor’s alleged malfeasance and may have even played a role in the FBI sting that snared Blagojevich, has already announced what it has called “the strictest and most far-reaching ethics rules of any transition team.”
But those rules barely scratch the surface if Obama is intent on following through on his lofty promises of change. For Obama’s campaign did not speak merely of changes to the way the president operates — it spoke of reforming the culture of Washington, which includes Capitol Hill.
Veteran Democratic political consultant Robert Shrum said, however, that Obama now may be forced to follow his own promises of clean government to the letter of the law.
“Obama is going to have to enforce the ethical standard he’s set out for his own people and make them an exemplar,” Shrum said. “He’s set out genuinely tough standards, and I think this only increases the reason and pressures to hold to those.”
His approach, of course, will have to be balanced against political reality.
To accomplish his ambitious agenda, the president-elect will need some heavy lifting by Democratic congressional leadership, which has already signaled that it will not act on Rangel’s fate until a House ethics committee investigation is completed in early January. Obama’s challenge will be to respond without antagonizing Congress in general — and senior Democrats in particular — before he even takes the oath of office.
The alternative — that is, failing to recognize the confluence of events that provide Obama with a unique opportunity to prove there is a new sheriff in town — might prove equally damaging to Obama’s image as an agent of change.
Already, Republicans are seizing on the scandal not only to highlight the abuse of power but also to underscore its partisan dimensions. For the GOP, it is a welcome chance to change the subject from its own recent scandals, such as the recent conviction of longtime Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) on influence-trading charges.
“Unfortunately, neither political party has been immune to corruption by a select few bent on abusing the public trust. But it’s the responsibility of leaders in both parties to restore accountability, strengthen transparency and repair Americans’ faith in their government,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in a statement.
“Every Democratic and labor union official, whether in Illinois or in their national organizations, who has spoken with the governor or his aides about this U.S. Senate seat should step forward and immediately make public the full details of those conversations and meetings. The stain of corruption needs to be lifted from this selection process, and the public trust restored.”