Give the New Guy a Break

Obama deserves some time before the media start piling on about the Blagola scandal.

Rod Blagojevich and Barack Obama in spring 2007

Barack Obama’s initial response to the Rod Blagojevich scandal was flaccid. But his current posture seems perfectly reasonable. He has asked for a week before releasing details about his aides’ contacts with the governor, and that’s what he should get.

Reporters should keep asking questions, of course. Monday’s exchange between Obama and John McCormick of the Chicago Tribune seemed to be a fine model for the new presidency. McCormick asked about a contradiction in Obama’s statements about Blagojevich, and Obama said U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald asked him to wait until Dec. 22 before saying anything. As nonanswers go, it was fairly straightforward—far preferable to the usual tactic of giving a nonanswer and pretending it is a real answer.

It would be a mistake to assume Obama is acting in bad faith. I know: He’s a politician, so maybe it’s safe to assume that he’s not being completely candid. And Obama’s initial answer did have a little weasel in it. But as a general matter, President-elect Obama has tried to meet the press halfway. He’s held 11 press conferences since winning the election. (The 12th is tomorrow.) Sure, it’d be nice if the conferences included more than four questions, but that’s hardly evidence of bad faith. (Access can sometimes be a head fake—politicians answer a few questions regularly so they don’t have to face a protracted engagement, which is harder—but we don’t know if this is what Obama is up to.)

There’s quite a distance among press management, artful shading, and outright fibbing. Overall, we’re still figuring out where the next administration and its leader fall in that continuum. Right now, however, Obama is within the neighborhood of press management—an irritating but necessary part of the dance we’ll be doing for the next four years. And reporters are likely to get a chance to ask more questions, and maybe get even better answers, if they don’t assume immediately that Obama is trying to game the system.

The other reason the press should give Obama his time to answer is that if it doesn’t, it risks undermining the authority it will need when he finally does answer the question. If every nonanswer is described as a failure, then there will be no language to describe a truly meaningful mistake.

What’s more, obsessing about the lack of a response from Obama makes things easier for him in a way. It puts pressure on the system, so that any response (no matter how weak or implausible) seems sufficient to the public. Any follow-up questions will seem excessive, just part of the same scandal-mongering instinct that didn’t allow him reasonable room to comply with the U.S. attorney’s request.

And there’s a particular reason follow-up questions are helpful. What’s at issue here is not just whether Obama’s aides had inappropriate contact with Blagojevich. There is lots of evidence from the complaint that they did not. What I’ll be looking for when Obama tells all, as he’s promised, is the distance between what the president-elect and his aides said on Dec. 9, after Blago was arrested, and what we learn on Dec. 22. The difference will give us a sense of the incoming group’s dissembling index—how easily they veer from the truth when questioned. After taking that first measurement, it will be easier to put their future remarks in context and to know whether this benefit of the doubt is warranted.

There are two items I’d like to know about. After the scandal broke, Obama adviser David Axelrod said that Barack Obama always wanted his friend Valerie Jarrett to serve in the White House. It was a pure act of delusion that Blagojevich would think Obama wanted her to be a senator. But the Chicago Sun Times also reported that Rahm Emanuel told Blagojevich Jarrett would like Obama’s old seat. What’s the truth of this? If Emanuel did suggest her as a candidate, then a gap opens between the truth and the spin. Was Emanuel pushing Jarrett on his own and not letting his new boss know? Or was Obama, in fact, keen for her to be in the Senate? That would make the post-arrest spin look like an effort to dissemble in order to protect Obama and Jarrett from the scandal.

The next matter concerns the president-elect himself. When first asked about the scandal, Obama said, “I was not aware of what was happening,” and declined to say any more. On Dec. 22, we can hope to learn how he defined “what was happening.” Did he mean he didn’t know the narrow details of how Blagojevich was shaking people down? Or that Blagojevich was shaking people down at all? Or that he didn’t know what was happening with his former Senate seat?

Whatever we ultimately learn about what Obama did know, we’ll be able to measure it against that initial statement. And that will give us a sense of how much lawyer there is in the president-elect’s answers. If Obama ducks all these questions, then my faith was misplaced. Until then, I say, let’s give the new guy a break.