Is the Chicago way the change we need?

Thursday morning at a Chicago news conference, president-elect Obama expressed his confidence that no Representative of his did any bargaining with Democrat Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois to fill Obama’s U.S. Senate seat. He also promised to provide a list of contacts between members of his transition team and the office of the disgraced governor:

“I’ve asked my team to gather the facts of any contacts with the governor’s office about this vacancy so that we can share them with you over the next few days.”

Now that it has been revealed that the man Obama has designated to be his top aide, chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel, had multiple conversations with the Blagojevich administration about possible Senate replacements for Obama, says Commentary Magazine’s Jennifer Rubin, “there is added urgency” for Team Obama to produce its list.

Somehow, I doubt that Obama feels that same sense of urgency. It has been three full days now, and still no list has been produced. It should be a straightforward task to assemble such a list. It’s not like the “Office of the President-Elect” has that many people on its staff, and only a very few of them would have the authority to speak for Obama with the governor or his aides. Either they had contact with Blago’s office or they didn’t. This is not the Apollo Project.

But already Team Obama has had to make a mid-course correction. When the president-elect stated on December 9 that he had “no contact with the governor or his office” and he “was not aware of what was happening,” it was a direct contradiction of senior advisor David Axlerod on November 23, when he stated that he knew Obama had talked to the governor about his soon to be vacated Senate seat. Axlerod had to issue a statement during the evening following the president-elect’s news conference that the senior advisor “was mistaken” about Obama and Blaojevich meeting to talk about filling the seat. So Axlerod morphed from “I knew” into “I was mistaken.”

RS alum Mark Impomeni reminds us that in a 2005 Chicago Tribune op-ed, Obama’s senior advisor maintained that dealing political positions for reciprocity is actually the American way, not an unacceptable practice, as most of us believe. Alxelrod wrote:

“The democratic process is often messy. Diverse constituencies fight fiercely for their priorities. Their elected representatives use the influence they have to meet those needs, including sometimes the exchange of favors–consideration for jobs being just one.”

In what may the supreme irony of the entire sordid scandal, Mark explains the motivativation for Axlerod’s opinion piece:

Patrick Fitzgerald had just indicted aides to Axelrod’s boss, Mayor Daley, for conspiring to award city jobs as payback for favors done on the Mayor’s behalf.

Mr. Axlerod’s way may be the Chicago way, but it sure isn’t the American way, and depending on how it is done, it just might be illegal. Perhaps I was also mistaken. It may not be such a straightforward task for Obama’s people to assemble a contact list after all. If other members of the Obama transition team are as apparently confused as was Axlerod about whether they had contact with Blago’s office, this could take some time. As Rick Moran observed about Emmanuel’s multiple contacts with the governor’s office:

There is no good explanation for how Rahm Emmanuel could have spoken to Blago’s people and not told Obama.

That begs the question of whether the president-elect’s confidence in the members of his team could have been premature. Moran is skeptical about the forthcoming list of contacts:

Not only Obama’s denial of contact rings hollow at this point but how about his solemn promise to have his staff canvass his transition team in order to ferret out anyone who had contact with the Blago crew? If he knew Rahm was dealing with Blago on the senate seat, it means that entire exercise is political theater and no more.

Of course it is entirely possible that Emmanuel did discuss possible replacements for the Senate seat with the governor’s office without dirty dealing or agreeing to a quid pro quo, as maintained by Obama’s defenders who harbor no doubts about the integrity of the president-elect and those closest to him. When it come to Rhambo, at least, The Chicago Tribune’s John Kass is not one of those trusting souls.

Even when a list is finally produced, Jim Lundgren at Volokh warns that:

Barack Obama’s promise to release a list of contacts “between the transition office and the governor’s office” commits to far less than people think.


I expect them to disclose only a fraction of the other indirect contacts between the two camps. The more explicit the corrupt offer, the more likely it was conveyed indirectly, rather than directly.


When the Obama camp releases its internal report, again it will be important to read what it says — and what it doesn’t say — about the comprehensiveness of the list of contacts.

Expectations of hope and change from the coming Obama administration have been sinking like the value of General Motors stock since the election. First Team Obama began the process of backing off on its campaign promises. The next order of business was to select a cabinet that looks like Clinton III. Now, with conflicting statements made by Obama’s top advisor, that same advisor’s opinion that there is no shame in trading political jobs for favors, and a murky series of contacts between Obama’s chief of staff and a disgraced governor’s administration, the stench of corruption “the Chicago way” threatens to foul the air of Washington D.C. even beyond the norm.

As Obama, from behind a podium adorned with a “Change We Need” sign, often said on the campaign trail, “You can’t make this stuff up.”

Update: Team Obama says, “About that contact list…”

– JP