Friday, July 9, 2010

Obama and the Chicago Machine

By Kimberly Strassel

Since that February 2007 day when a young U.S. senator announced an inspiring presidential run, Barack Obama has been on the lam. He's been running from that Chicago machine that gave birth to his political career, but later became a liability to his reformist message. It's dogging him still.

Consider the trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, which is sucking in most of the president's Chicago intimates. The threat to the White House isn't that Mr. Obama will be accused of wrongdoing. The threat is that the trial offers evidence for a growing view that Mr. Obama isn't so much "new politics" as a typical Chicago pol.

We've already seen a hint of the threat. Among the many accusations against Mr. Blagojevich is that he sought to sell Mr. Obama's old Senate seat. Mr. Blagojevich appeared particularly interested in naming Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett in return for a cabinet post or a union job.

When the scandal broke after the 2008 election, the incoming administration scrambled to distance itself from its old Chicago crew. Greg Craig, future White House counsel, was tasked with an internal investigation and dutifully reported that "The President-Elect had no contact or communication with Governor Blagojevich or members of his staff about the Senate seat." Moreover, the president-elect "did not actively seek" to put Mrs. Jarrett in that post. Nothing to see here, folks.

Nothing to see save top union official Tom Balanoff, who last week took the stand in Chicago. Mr. Balanoff testified under oath that the night prior to the election, he was called by Mr. Obama. "Tom, I want to talk to you with regard to the Senate seat," said the future president. According to Mr. Balanoff's testimony, Mr. Obama laid out two criteria for who he'd like to see get the post—good for Illinois, electable in 2010—and then noted that Mrs. Jarrett certainly met those two criteria. Mr. Balanoff testified that he then assured Mr. Obama he'd "reach out to Gov. Blagojevich."

This is a Barack Obama the White House would prefer the public not see. The conversation suggests a president who (like any good Chicago politician) knows the feds have half the city wiretapped, and so resorts to the wink-and-nod tactics of sending an emissary. It suggests a president whose first call on a big political issue was to a union boss. It suggests a president willing to elide the truth in an official report. It may be technically accurate that the president didn't directly speak to Mr. Blagojevich—and didn't directly demand Mrs. Jarrett—but that wasn't really the point, was it?

The Balanoff testimony was a hint of what may come. Illinois Democratic Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias has been subpoenaed over his role in setting up a meeting between Mrs. Jarrett and Mr. Balanoff. The trial thrusts back into the spotlight convicted Chicago felon and Obama booster Tony Rezko. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin was subpoenaed over his own call with Mr. Blagojevich about the seat. Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett (a former aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley) has been subpoenaed. So has White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who has become entangled (though not charged) in a separate accusation that Mr. Blagojevich sought to trade favors with him when he was a Chicago congressman. Don't you just love this city?

Read the rest here.

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