"I was appalled and disappointed by what we heard in those transcripts," Barack Obama said Thursday about the documented misconduct of the governor of Illinois. That's right. He was appalled. And it only took him 48 hours to realize it.
If the U.S. attorney is to be believed, we had Rod Blagojevich talking about auctioning off Obama's old Senate seat. We had him trying to extort a newspaper. We had him trying to parlay a tollway project into a $500,000 contribution from a highway contractor. We even had him trying to shakedown a children's hospital.
The reaction from fellow Illinois Democrats was swift and severe. Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn demanded that the governor step aside. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin urged the legislature to call a special election to fill the Senate seat. Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan proposed to ask the Supreme Court to disqualify the governor from carrying out his duties.
But Obama had a "My Pet Goat" moment, freezing up in the face of the shock. "I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on the issue at this time," he said. "It's a sad day for Illinois." You'd have thought the Bears had failed to make the playoffs.
That was the first day. The second day he was only slightly less tepid, with his office issuing a statement saying, "The president-elect agrees with Lt. Gov. Quinn that under the current circumstances it is difficult for the governor to effectively do his job and serve the people of Illinois."
Would it be "difficult" for Blagojevich to serve the people? Yes, kind of like it was "difficult" for the Titanic to continue its voyage. Understatement is one thing. What Obama exhibited was more like lockjaw.
By Thursday, he sounded like the agent of change that we remember: "We have to reclaim a tradition of public service that is about people and their lives and their hopes and their dreams, and it isn't about what's in it for me. And I think the public trust has been violated. Let me be absolutely clear, I do not think that the governor, at this point, can effectively serve the people of Illinois." Would it have been reckless to say that when the story first broke?
In the taped conversations, Blagojevich expressed hope that he could get a Cabinet position if he gave the seat to Obama aide Valerie Jarrett but later fumed that "they're not willing to give me anything except appreciation." Another aide, David Axelrod, now says he was wrong when he said last month that the president-elect and the governor had discussed possible appointees. But Blagojevich's comments suggest that someone from the Obama camp was communicating on the matter.
If that's so, it doesn't prove that Obama is just another crooked Chicago pol. But it is a reminder that though he is not of the Democratic machine, he has never been exactly against it. Former congressman and federal judge Abner Mikva said of Blagojevich, "You don't get through Chicago like Barack Obama did unless you know how to avoid people like that." Note the verb: not "challenge" but "avoid." His approach to old-style politics was wary coexistence.
Obama's risk-averse reaction confirms he is sometimes too cautious and cerebral for his own good. That flaw has occasionally surfaced before. Asked in one debate what he would do in the event of a terrorist attack, he offered, "Well, the first thing we'd have to do is make sure that we've got an effective emergency response, something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans." Hillary Clinton begged to differ: "I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate."
This is the downside of what is best about Obama: his careful, deliberate approach to decision-making. In the normal course of events, it's far superior to the impulsive style of John McCain, which gave us Sarah Palin and "today we are all Georgians."
But Obama came to public attention because of a speech, at the 2004 Democratic convention, that showed he was capable not only of clear thought but of genuine passion. This week—in the face of a scandal involving his state, his party, and his Senate seat—that passion was absent.
You can understand why a shrewd, ambitious young state senator would be reluctant to renounce the political culture and the political establishment that spawned Rod Blagojevich. But can someone tell Obama he's been elected president?
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