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Obama’s Blagojevich Problem

Audacious. Arrogant. More than a little absurd. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s statement last Friday responding (finally) to his arrest looked like Richard Nixon on speed, which is sort of what it was. Here is a man ruined, seemingly, by his own corrupt enterprises — chiefly the attempt to sell Obama’s vacant Senate seat (he has the prerogative to pick a replacement) — who barely has a leg to stand on politically or legally. But he comes out fighting. With Rudyard Kipling quotes.

It was good. He spoke with power, with great confidence. It had such clarity. You watch and think, “I’d like this guy to be innocent. It’d be more fun.” And then you remember his past and his record and the strength of the case against him and that feeling fades. The consensus is he’s guilty and it’s not ambiguous. Caught on tape apparently trying to sell Obama’s “fucking valuable” Senate seat, his clinging on to power seems brazen at best and worrying at worst. And then, right after his statement, he pardoned twenty-two people. And you think, “what is this guy on?”

I have a feeling that this mess will be forgotten — at least outside of Illinois — as soon as the court case is resolved. The reason it’s so important is the Obama connection. And, quite simply, the handling of the fall-out by the Obama team has been their biggest mistake of the transition thus far.

When you’re faced with tough questions about a scandal like this one, the best policy is to respond with absolute clarity. Clarity of message, clarity of approach. As soon as this thing heated up, as soon as the inevitable question of transition team involvement was raised, they should have told the truth, unambiguously, in detail. It’s what you do if you are innocent. If you’re guilty, you obfuscate.

Obama obfuscated: “I had no contact with the governor or his office and so we were not, I was not aware of what was happening.” Note the use of we, and then deciding instead to go with I. He was trying to give the impression of complete distance from Blagojevich, without lying. He was ‘economical with the truth’. The truth: Rahm Emanuel, his Chief of Staff, had spoken to the Governor and had been wiretapped doing so. He seems to have done nothing illegal; today a report says he was completely innocent of any criminal activity.

Which begs the question, why obfuscate? When Emanuel’s conversation with Blagojevich was first reported, all hell broke loose. And when more questions came, Obama was vague, his spokespeople quiet or saying very little. People thought, “what are they hiding?”

It was a bad strategy, bad media management. They were innocent but they’ve made themselves look implicated. They look like they’ve tried a cover-up — a cover-up of perfectly legal and legitimate activity, but a cover-up nonetheless. And it might have hurt them.

Some mistakes politicians make impact upon the microtrend — the short term state of public opinion. Others impact upon the macrotrend — the less fickle, more solid and enduring opinions people hold. The macrotrend tends to be more important: it’s about our overall impression of something or someone, not individual little happenings that vanish from our consciousness soon after. Naturally, our overall impression is partly a product of an accumulation of microtrends: if a politician keeps saying daft things, we eventually get the impression he or she is a bit daft. The macrotrend is all about ‘bigger’ stuff, like trust, integrity, personality, character, values.

Here’s my point. In the wake of this mess, the perception about the Obama team is not “they’re innocent”, nor “they’re guilty”, but rather “they tried to mislead us”. And that impacts upon trust.

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