At first blush, Barack Obama comes out of the Rod Blagojevich scandal smelling like a rose. The prosecutor at a news conference seemed to give the president-elect a seal of approval, and the Illinois governor himself was caught on tape complaining that Obama was not interested in crooked schemes.
But make no mistake: The Blagojevich scandal is nothing but a stink bomb tossed at close range for Obama and his team.
Legal bills, off-message headlines, and a sustained attempt by Republicans to show that Obama is more a product of Illinois’s malfeasance-prone political culture than he is letting on—all are likely if the Blagojevich case goes to trial or becomes an extended affair.
Obama and his aides have so far mounted a tight-lipped defense, publicly distancing themselves from Blagojevich’s alleged plans to profit personally from his power to fill Obama’s newly vacant Senate seat with firm but vague denials of any involvement.
Privately, Obama allies are noting that the foul-mouthed governor and the president-elect, though both Democrats atop the Illinois power structure, are hardly close: Obama did not back Blagojevich in his 2002 primary race for governor, and Blagojevich did not back Obama in his 2004 Senate primary.
Republicans, though, plan to keep the pressure on. Republican National Chairman Robert “Mike” Duncan on Tuesday said Obama’s initial response to questions about the governor was inadequate. South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, seeking the national party post, went further. He called on Obama to release any records of discussions between his transition team and Blagojevich about Obama’s successor – citing Obama’s oft-repeated pledge for greater transparency.
And, in a Politico interview, Illinois state Republican chairman Andy McKenna, pressed Obama to commit to keeping U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in his post until the corruption cases run their course.
One prominent Chicago Democrat close to many of those named in the indictment suggested the risk for Obama is “Whitewater-type exposure.” That was a reference to an Arkansas real estate deal that produced a series lengthy and highly intrusive investigations in the 1990s that never proved illegality by the Clintons.
What this Democrat meant with his analogy—which on the facts so far seems a bit premature—was that Obama could suffer by being in the proximity of a back-scratching and deal-making culture, even if he was mostly a bystander. “What will splatter on to Obama is he is to some degree a product of this culture, and he has never entirely stood against it,” said the Democrat, who wanted anonymity for fear of antagonizing the president-elect.
Indeed, at a minimum it will be hard for a transition team that wants to shine a light on their plans to clean up Washington if the steaming compost pile of Illinois politics— and its florid tradition of bribes, extortion, and payback—is in the news.
But there are less obvious hazards. Anyone who has ever been near a public corruption case—and many of Obama’s top advisers have, thanks to their experience in the Clinton years—knows the hassles that can torment even innocent people. Even peripheral figures wind up hiring expensive lawyers. At trial, testimony by minor witnesses becomes a major news event if it is someone close to the president taking the stand.
Prosecutor Fitzgerald pointed out during questions and answers at his news conference that “there's no reference in the complaint to any conversation involving the president-elect or indicating that the president-elect was aware of it.”
Obama advisers argue that Blagojveich's alleged crimes -- extorting campaign contributions from a children's hospital, demanding the firing of the top editors at the Chicago's flagship newspaper in return for state assistance -- are so over-the-top that they speak for themselves, and will only serve to taint the disgraced governor.
Obama aides see proof of his vindication in the fact that Blagojevich, in the secret tapes, complains that the president-elect’s team won’t give him anything. Obama emerged personally untarnished in the 78-page Blagojevich complaint. He was, to the allegedly deeply corrupt governor, the “mother***er” who was owed no favors and a lily-livered reformer who, instead of a bribe, wouldn’t give the disgusted Blagojevich “anything except appreciation.”
But there are enough unanswered questions to give his political opponents plenty of grist, starting with Obama’s curt denial that he had ever spoken to Blagojevich about how to fill Obama’s vacant seat.
His chief political adviser, David Axelrod, Tuesday corrected his own suggestion last month that Obama and Blagojevich had spoken about filling Obama’s vacant seat. Spokespeople did not respond to a question of when Obama and Blagojevich last spoke, and about what.
And there is the question of Fitzgerald’s future . Presidents can appoint their own U.S. Attorneys, but Republicans aim to all but dare Obama to remove the crusading Fitzgerald before he's done cleaning out corruption in Chicago and Springfield.
"What he should do tomorrow is say, 'Patrick Fitzgerald has a job and can have for as long as he wants,'" McKenna told Politico. "Some have wondered if Barack Obama would keep Fitzgerald [as U.S. Attorney]. It would be great if he confirms that he plans to."
Meanwhile, the case is likely to turn reporters into students of Illinois political history, just as the Clinton presidency produced a generation of reporters and opposition researchers obsessed with turning over the rocks of Arkansas politics.
In 2002, when Blagojevich left the U.S. House (opening up a seat for Emanuel), Obama joined other black Chicago Democrats – including his one-time rival Bobby Rush and state Senate mentor Emil Jones –in supporting Roland Burris, an African-American former Illinois Comptroller and state Attorney General.
In a further effort to put distance between Obama and the governor, Obama allies are preemptively noting that incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s claim this summer in a New Yorker article that he and Obama were “the top strategists of Blagojevich's victory” in 2002 was inaccurate.
In a subsequent article in the Springfield political publication Capitol Fax this summer, now being circulated by Obama allies, Emanuel walked back his assertion.
"David [Wilhelm] and I have worked together on campaigns for decades,” Emanuel said, referring to the Democratic operative who was a top adviser to Blagojevich in 2002 and strongly denied that Obama had been involved in that race. “Like always, he's right and I'm wrong."
Further, the allies note that Blagojevich did not support Obama in 2004 in what was initially thought to be a hotly contested primary.
Still, as Obama emerged from the sheltered, reformist enclave of Hyde Park in the 1990s, he made valuable friends among the bosses of its political machine – Mayor Richard Daley, Emil Jones and many others. He bragged at times that Illinois had made him tough. He also campaigned on an ethics bill he helped pass in the Illinois State Senate.
And he seemed still to be in that Chicago straddle when asked about Blagojevich’s arrest yesterday, mustering only word that he was “saddened” and “sobered” at a time when even other Illinois Democrats were demanding Blagojevich resign.