(AP) – Barack Obama, being from Chicago, knows there are two basic ways to play foul in politics.
One is to break the law.
The other is to keep it legal, if shadily close to the line. It may not stink to high heaven, but it smells a little.
In the 2008 campaign and after, Obama said he’d tolerate neither as president, and he set the bar high.
How’s he doing now?
Well, it’s not all smelling like roses on the political front.
In a couple of known cases, his operatives tried to game the system ahead of Democratic congressional primaries, dangling job possibilities in front of challengers in hopes they would get out of the way of Obama’s preferred incumbents. (They didn’t.)
This appears to be mild stuff in the canon of political manipulation, the kind of puppeteering that leaders in both parties have done for generations.
For truly conniving, ego-driven, potty-mouthed machinations from the belly of the Chicago Democratic machine, tune in to the corruption trial just under way of Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor accused of scheming to profit from his ability to fill Obama’s old Senate seat.
Even so, dispensing favors for political ends was a specialty of the old ward bosses, not to mention some bare-knuckled presidents. Obama presented himself as above that sort of thing.
He staked a claim to purity on that front, said primaries belong to the people not the pols and decried even the subtle back-room tactics “that are within the lines of legality but still don’t fulfill the spirit of service.”
Such was Obama’s response a month before taking office, when Blagojevich’s troubles spilled into the open. Obama was fresh from a campaign whose most remarkable chapter came early on when he defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
Back then, Obama was the Rep. Joe Sestak of the day, making things messy for the party establishment by challenging a respected and powerful figure favored for the nomination.
Now, though, Obama’s at the pinnacle of the established order and wants to keep things orderly as Democrats pick candidates for the fall elections, hoping to avoid the populist brush fires consuming the careers of some veteran Republicans.
To that end, the Obama White House sought to protect two senators against upstart Democratic challengers who were powered, like Obama once was against Clinton, by the audacity of hope.
In a Pennsylvania Senate primary contest, the White House dispatched former President Bill Clinton to try to get Sestak to stand down against longtime Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican turned Democrat. Sestak’s prize: an unpaid presidential advisory position while keeping his seat in the House.
Sestak said he rejected the overture in less than a minute. He went on to defeat Specter.
Then late last week, it emerged that White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina had contacted former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff about possible administration jobs in hopes that Romanoff wouldn’t challenge Sen. Michael Bennet in the state’s Aug. 10 Senate primary.
Messina described three federal international development jobs that might be available to Romanoff if he got out of Bennet’s way. Like Sestak, Romanoff decided to stay in the race.
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama was “not aware of the individual circumstances” of these attempts to protect the president’s preferred candidates. Gibbs said presidents “have long had an interest in ensuring that supporters didn’t run against each other in contested elections.”
Indeed they have, but this wasn’t supposed to be politics as usual.
During the campaign, Obama cited his Chicago political cred when he needed to prove his toughness against Clinton in their Democratic primary slog. Despite an iffy association or two, though, Obama never fell in with that crowd as an Illinois lawmaker and then U.S. senator.
His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel – a former congressman who says he wants to be Chicago mayor someday – was singled out by the national Republican Party chairman, Michael Steele, in the GOP’s weekly radio and Internet address Saturday.
If Emanual “has been offering government goodies to inconvenient politicians threatening Democratic incumbents, then it’s time for him to resign,” Steele said.
A Republican campaign ad that said Obama was “born of the corrupt Chicago political machine” rang hollow because he made his own way without the taint or nurturing of that storied apparatus.
In the Blagojevich case, so far so good for Obama. Federal wiretaps revealed a foul-mouthed Blagojevich complaining that Obama’s associates would not deal with him on the Senate selection. They were “not willing to give me anything except appreciation,” he steamed.
But much more light is bound to be shed on contacts between the former governor and Obama’s aides, through wiretaps and probably with the president’s associates dragged in as witnesses.
Democrats face the prospect of embarrassments trickling out as private conversations and usually hidden maneuverings become public from the courtroom.
On several fronts, then, it remains to be seen whether Obama can meet the promise to make politics and government a new model of propriety, where “you can get elected by playing it straight, you can get elected by doing the right thing,” and begone with the back door.