The Short Honeymoon

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If you’re a football fan, you know all about scripted plays – the method behind those precision-based offenses that can come out onto the field running a prepared order of plays, no huddle, picking up yards with ease.  If they’re successful, they can set the tone for the whole game. In presidential politics, the first 100 days is the equivalent for any new Commander in Chief: can the momentum from electoral victory translate to policy results?

But in truth, every new president faces an issue or event within the first 100 days that tends to ruin the script.  For Bill Clinton, it was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  Clinton had wanted to make his presidency about permanently cementing the middle class for the center-left, but before he even got on track, he became locked in a battle with old guard members of his own party like Sam Nunn and Robert Byrd, unintentionally helping spark the culture war revival of the nineties.  George Stephanopoulos, in his better than you might expect memoir “All Too Human,” is convinced that the Clinton presidency could’ve gone much differently without this unexpected fight on undesired ground.

For George W. Bush, the script-breaking moment was the unanticipated controversy over stem cells – an issue that forced his first address to the nation.  While his policy was controversial for both sides of the ideological divide, his attempt at a moderate solution on the issue was ultimately far more successful than Clinton’s, and has been vindicated in the years since (for more on that, I highly recommend reading Ryan T. Anderson and Joseph Bottum’s essay in last month’s First Things, where they explain that “the history of the stem-cell debate is a study of what happens when politics and science reach out to each other.”)

Clinton failed his test, and Bush got a C+ (from the public at least) on his.  But with the ever-expanding scandal of what happened in Illinois, President-elect Obama is now facing a rift in his script that is unprecedented and shocking: a disruption that comes before he has even been sworn into office.

One wonders when the first Obama presidential press conference will take place now.  It’s clear he was unprepared for this circumstance – his hesitancy in answering questions, his claims that he knows of nothing wrong done by his staff, the Axelrod disconnect, the scrubbed meetings.  The press still loves Obama with all the passion of an epic high school crush, but the one thing that upsets them is feeling they’re getting avoided by their beloved (“Why isn’t he calling any more?  Am I not important to him?”).

In this case, this is a scandal that’s just too juicy for the press to ignore. It doesn’t have any of the complexity of Tony Rezko or the hot-button issues of Jeremiah Wright – it’s as simple and easy to explain as it gets, and has audio evidence (that should leak eventually) to boot.  Jen Rubin at Commentary has an excellent post on this, citing a New York Times article as an example of the trend.  Even Obama’s media supporters can’t help but point out that Obama confidants like COS Rahm Emanuel and National Campaign Co-Chair Jesse Jackson Jr. are up to their ears in connections to this scandal:

Mr. Emanuel was among the few people in Mr. Obama’s circle who occasionally spoke to Mr. Blagojevich. He declined to answer questions on Wednesday, waving off a reporter who approached him as he walked across Capitol Hill.

A Democrat familiar with Illinois politics and the Obama transition, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there probably were calls between the Blagojevich and Obama camps about the Senate seat. It was not clear if any calls were recorded by federal agents, who had tapped the governor’s phones.

So when will the first press conference happen?  When it does, what will they ask?  A friend suggests draft questions of: “Do you feel hurt by this?” “Have you talked to your staffers about how hurt you are?” “Has Rahm Emanuel been feeling bad about this too?”  “We’re sure you’ve already parted ways with Jackson, Jr. Did that hurt?”

It seems on first appearance that Obama himself did nothing wrong.  And I personally don’t believe the President-elect is dumb enough to be recorded in anything connected to this matter.  But this is exactly the sort of deal that Emanuel has been rumored to be connected to in the past, and he has shared more staff with Blagojevich than any other politician.  These reports will only continue, and he can’t duck reporters forever.

All this brings us to our question of the day (we’ll be adding a poll widget brought to you by the folks at AOL’s Political Machine – shoutout!): the Honeymoon is over before it began.  So what comes next?

Does the arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was endorsed by Barack Obama two years ago, for trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat to (among others) the national co-chair of Obama’s presidential campaign:

  • Suggest that the press should have looked more closely at Obama’s involvement in Chicago machine politics during the campaign?
  • Signal that Obama’s background in Chicago machine politics will continue to haunt him, in much the way Arkansas scandals haunted Bill Clinton?
  • Represent the point at which the media starts asking Obama questions he can’t or won’t answer to their satisfaction?
  • Just an unfortunate distraction for the new President, nothing more?