The first rule of political crisis management: Tell everything. Every megascandal, from Watergate to Monica, was exacerbated by the slow trickle of embarrassing information. Better to put it all out there at once, take the heat, and move on.
On Day 3 of the Blagojevich affair—which needs a name: send nominations here—Barack Obama obeyed that rule, but with a twist: He promised to tell everything soon.
At a morning press conference in Chicago, Obama assured reporters that he had never spoken with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich about filling his empty Senate seat, despite a previous statement to the contrary (since retracted) by his own senior adviser. Obama said he was “certain” there was no deal-making between his office and the governor’s. And he promised 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 several days.” (In other words, “I’ll find some and I’ll bring them to ya!“) Obama thus disavowed any connection to Blagojevich’s crimes while leaving open the door for future revelations.
On the one hand, this response doesn’t satisfy: How hard is it to figure out who was the Obama team’s liaison to Blagojevich? (Some think Rahm Emanuel, who replaced Blagojevich in his House seat, would be the obvious tie.) It’s only natural that Obama would share his views about his replacement with Blagojevich—did they really have no contact regarding the seat? (We know they met as recently as last week.)
On the other hand, Obama is a delegator, not a micromanager: He can’t possibly know every last interaction between his office and the governor’s. Plus, caution behooves Obama right now. The scandal isn’t about to disappear—U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald still needs to decide whether to hold a preliminary hearing or bring an indictment. And it’s best to make sure you’ve got the facts straight before issuing a blanket denial. Creating a fact-finding committee is often a way of deflecting questions. But this time, at least, the questions aren’t going away.
Meanwhile, Obama honed a few other approaches that are forming the foundations of the Obama school of crisis management:
Feed the sharks. Navigating a crisis is a fine balance. If you say too much, you might give the story oxygen. If you don’t say enough, people will think you’re evading tough questions. Obama knows that reporters need a story for the next day’s papers, and that if they don’t get one, the story will be: “Obama Stonewalls.” He therefore called for Blagojevich to resign, cranked up the Emote-a-Tron from 3 to 6 (saying he was “appalled and disappointed” by the revelations), and said definitively that his aides did not bargain for the Senate seat.
Dangle a shiny object. Maybe you missed it, but the actual purpose of today’s presser was to introduce the leaders of Obama’s health care team: Tom Daschle as secretary of health and human services and head of a new White House Office of Health Reform, and Jeanne Lambrew as its deputy director. That gives Obama cover to answer questions about Blagojevich without appearing to make it his focus. It also guarantees that at least some column inches will be devoted to something other than the Blago-sphere.
Express outrage only when pressed. Obama raised eyebrows when his first statement after the arrest of Blagojevich left out the whole disapproval part (especially compared with Fitzgerald’s impassioned presser). He made up for that today. Outrage does not come easily to Obama. He denounced the Rev. Jeremiah Wright only after a series of middling statements. His equanimity serves him well when it comes to decision-making, as well as in campaign contexts like debates, where coolness reigns. When it comes to denouncing disgraced politicians, though, the crowd wants blood.
Answer questions at length. Obama took only four questions today, but the answers went on forever. He turned a question about corruption in Illinois into a disquisition on the nature of public service. He went on about all the different ways in which he knew nothing about Blagojevich’s dealings. The long answers are a relief for veterans of President Bush’s press room, but they also obscure the occasional dodge. Today, Obama was asked how Blago got the impression he was being uncooperative if he had no contact with the governor’s office—the key question in the whole mess. We’re still waiting on an answer.
Obama’s still in a good spot: The Blagojevich complaint leaves him pretty much untainted. And the questions raised—did he want Valerie Jarrett to replace him?—don’t necessarily have embarrassing answers. But if he’s going to keep invoking a new kind of politics, one that is honest and transparent, Obama will have to put all his cards on the table.