The Johnson Test

Will Obama show us the instruction manual for his new kind of politics?

Sen. Barack Obama

Jim Johnson, the man Barack Obama has picked to lead his vice-presidential vetting team, has gotten preferential treatment for personal loans from Countrywide Financial, a company Sen. Obama and others have blamed for helping to create the subprime mortgage mess. How big a deal is this for the Democratic nominee? The Republican National Committee, as you might expect, is diving for the fainting couches. Here is an assessment, based on three different standards:

The Obama Standard 
Barack Obama called out Countrywide by name on the campaign trail during the primaries. He particularly criticized the company’s CEO for his excessive compensation and more generally “infecting the economy and helping to create a home foreclosure crisis,” which he linked not only to the 2 million who lost their houses but to school districts that couldn’t purchase supplies and pay teachers. This is the same CEO who gave Johnson his sweetheart deal. Obama’s aides also criticized Clinton’s then-campaign strategist, Mark Penn, for giving PR advice to the company.

Now the man Obama has entrusted with what he has called the most important decision of his campaign is wrapped up in Countrywide and tied to the CEO. There are lots of unanswered questions about the Johnson deal, though no evidence as yet that he did anything wrong. But the Obama standard isn’t wrongdoing. It’s mere connection to the company. By that standard, this is bad news.

Since Obama has just held a national seminar for 16 months on changing politics and shedding the old insider way of doing things, you might expect that he’d take these disclosures seriously, if for no other reason than to show that even when it might hurt him, he’s committed to letting the light shine on his associates. Nope—his campaign has called the issue irrelevant. Double bad.

The McCain Standard
Jim Johnson is a powerful insider who has friends in high places. The Countrywide deal is evidence that they can get things done quickly and extra-smoothly for him. John McCain has lots of similarly connected friends like Johnson. Many of them raise money for him. Some of them work these kinds of connections professionally, are called lobbyists, and McCain hangs out with them. A former lobbyist is vetting  his vice-presidential picks. He also has former lobbyists on his staff, some of whom worked for free while being paid their regular salary by their lobbying firms. This amounts to a subsidy (it’s also legal, and Obama volunteers do it, too).

None of this should stop McCain from pointing out Obama’s hypocrisy about Johnson. It makes sense for McCain to balance out the hit he’s been taking for his special-interest ties by pointing out Obama’s difficulty here. But because of his own operations, he can make only so much of this. If McCain gets too self-righteous, he’ll open himself up to the same charges of hypocrisy Obama now faces.

The Objective Standard
There are lobbyists, and then there are friends. Both can influence the president. The latter can actually influence him more then any paid lobbyist. Far more, because influence peddling is a lot subtler than people think. Obama has called Johnson a “friend,” and if he helps the young senator navigate this crucial decision (including the sticky Hillary Clinton issue), they’re going to be good friends, or at the very least, Johnson will become a fixer.

Presidents, like the rest of us, rely on friends to give them trusted advice about their areas of expertise. Friends can also get their calls returned by presidents or the men and women who work for them. The advice-givers never show up on a lobbying disclosure form, but they can deeply influence a president’s thinking because they come to issues with an outside-the-bubble perspective and the credibility, often, of having been right before.

This is part of the Washington system, which as a whole Barack Obama is running against and promising to change. It’s also part of the Chicago system he comes from. But it’s not a factor of political life that Barack Obama talks about very much. He rails against lobbyists at length, but where does he draw the boundaries for himself on these other kinds of relationships? And where should the boundaries be? How does Obama, who says his mistakes with his friend Tony Rezko represent a lapse in judgment, show us he’s grown?

I’m not suggesting we have to vet every friend. But it would be great if Obama could show us the instructions for how his new kind of politics works on this front. He has a chance now. And he could see this as a political opportunity, too, to outdo McCain, who has sometimes responded to questions about his ties to lobbyists by saying that we should trust that he’s never done anything that would harm the public interest. The Johnson business is hardly the national crisis the Republican National Committee claims it is. But it’s worse than the brushoff Obama is giving it.