article

07.10.10

What Will the Fallout Be for Obama?

What feels like a relic of a scandal is a newfound headache for President Obama, as disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's trial begins. Will its muck reach all the way to the White House?

After five weeks, the trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich hasn't been able to outdo the oil spill, Elena Kagan, General McChrystal, and the World Cup in terms of getting the public's attention. Nevertheless, it continues to smolder away in Chicago, posing a potential threat to the Obama administration. So far, evidence and testimony about deal-making around his vacated Illinois senate seat has revealed nothing that incriminates President Obama, but it could still cause problems for him.

On Tuesday, the prosecution announced it will rest its case early, surprising the defense, who asked for extra time to prepare. Observers predict two possible strategies they'll use to keep Blagojevich out of jail. They could argue that he didn't know he was doing anything wrong. Or, they could bring in a full-blown parade of political figures, illuminating the state's quid pro quo political culture. The latter is what the White House is afraid of. "People may be breathing easier, 'cause there's been no major revelations really connecting Obama or Rahm to this guy," said an Illinois political aide. "But you never know what the long-term damage will be. The Obama people may be playing it cool, but trust me, they're plenty worried."

Here a few of the potential pitfalls that await the White House.

Obama a Chicago Politician After All?

This isn't hope and change, the defense may argue—it's how you do business in Chicago. Obama ran for president on the promise that he would change the corrupt culture of Washington, but could details emerge that make it look like he was part of the Chicago political machine after all? Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell Obama's Senate seat. After Obama was elected and the scandal broke, the White House hired Greg Craig to do an internal investigation into the Blago affair. Craig reported, "The president-elect had no contact or communication with Governor Blagojevich or members of his staff about the Senate seat." Except that union official Tom Balanoff testified last week that he got a call from the Obama the night before the election saying, "Tom, I want to talk to you with regard to the Senate seat." Balanoff said that he told Obama he'd "reach out to Gov. Blagojevich." So, although it's true that Obama did not talk to Blagojevich directly, some might argue that he sent an emissary, in true Chicago style. The fact that his first call on a major political issue was to a union boss also doesn't look good.

Tom Balanoff's Timeline

According to Tom Balanoff's testimony, when Obama called him the night before the election, the soon-to-be president-elect had two criteria for his Senate seat replacement: he wanted someone good for Illinois citizens, and someone electable in 2010. Obama's close friend, Valerie Jarrett, fit the bill. This call was not mentioned in the transition team report prepared by Greg Craig. Balanoff said he met with Governor Blagojevich two days later to recommend Jarrett for Obama's vacant Senate seat, and in return, Blagojevich asked for a cabinet position. In December 2008, Obama stated publicly that "no representatives of mine" tried to make a deal with Blagojevich for the Senate seat. Greg Craig's investigation report says that Balanoff told Jarrett about his conversation with the Illinois governor. The report also said that neither Balanoff nor Jarrett saw the conversation as an offer for a quid pro quo deal. One possible explanation for the discrepancy between the report and Balanoff's testimony, as offered by an Obama ally, is that Balanoff acted on his own, misinterpreting the pre-election coversation with the president. Neither Obama nor anyone on his staff has been accused of illegal activity, but the fallout from the scandal could burn the White House, which, so far, has refused to comment on Balanoff's testimony.

Testimony from Obama's Inner Circle Still to Come

Both Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett have been subpoenaed, but it's already been revealed that the FBI secretly recorded the Emanuel's calls to Blagojevich. Emanuel spoke to the governor about the Senate seat possibilities just days after Obama was elected president. There were also repeated calls from Emanuel's office to Blagojevich's team about getting funding for the Chicago Academy, which have yet to be explained. Craig's report said that Jarrett had no contact with Blagojevich or his team about Obama's Senate successor. It also said that Balanoff had spoken to Jarrett about Blago's desire for a cabinet post, but, "Ms. Jarrett did not understand the conversation to suggest that the Governor wanted the cabinet seat as a quid pro quo for selecting any specific candidate to be the President-Elect's replacement."

A Distraction from the Agenda

This summer has not been a good one for the White House agenda. President Obama had hoped to spend it focusing on creating jobs, promoting healthcare and financial reform, getting his Supreme Court nominee confirmed, and dealing with foreign-policy issues like Russian arms control and Iran sanctions. However, the oil spill, the Times Square bombing, the McChrystal firing, and the Blagojevich trial have all vied for his focus. As more of Obama's Chicago friends and colleagues—not to mention White House staff and other politicians—are called to testify, the administration has more reason to be nervous and the challenge to stay on track becomes that much harder.