A developing theme in the week-old scandal surrounding Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is the idea that the Obama team has mishandled what is essentially it’s first political crisis:
Team Obama’s response has made what should have been a one-day story into a full-blown p.r. crisis. So far, it seems to have adopted the early Clinton-administration approach – turn a minor problem into a big one by mismanaging the media.
The Obama camp has managed to violate almost every tenet of crisis communications – starting with Rule No. 1: Get all the information out quickly, accurately and fully.
It’s imperative that reporters don’t learn something from a third party that you could have told them. And, in the era of nonstop news, “quickly” means within 24 hours. Any longer, and reporters begin to get frustrated (they’re under pressure from their editors) and feel that you’re stonewalling them. And why would you stonewall unless you were hiding something?
In reality, politicians have lots of reasons not to “tell all” even when they have nothing to hide. Some insiders may not be totally forthcoming with the communications staff, making it hard to get out the whole story. Or top staff may disagree on how to respond – and, failing of consensus, wind up producing a drip, drip, drip of information – which can have deadly results.
Obama’s response has been an exercise in dripping.
As it turns out, though, there is another another side to the story:
WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama said Monday that an internal review had found that his advisers were not involved in any “inappropriate” talks with Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich or his aides over the vacant Senate seat in Illinois, but Mr. Obama agreed to a federal prosecutor’s request to withhold releasing the results of the inquiry until next week.
“I would ask for your patience,” Mr. Obama told reporters at a news conference in Chicago, “because I do not want to interfere with an ongoing investigation.”
Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said in a statement on Monday that he had asked Mr. Obama to delay releasing the findings of the transition team’s legal review so investigators could conduct interviews in the corruption case involving Mr. Blagojevich.
Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, is among a handful of Obama advisers — and the highest-ranking one — who had contact with the Illinois governor’s office about potential candidates to succeed Mr. Obama in the Senate. Mr. Emanuel has retained a lawyer and agreed to meet with federal prosecutors who are investigating accusations that Mr. Blagojevich was looking for a kickback in exchange for filling the Senate vacancy.
Gregory B. Craig, who will be the new White House counsel, shared the contents of the internal review with the United States attorney’s office and hoped to announce the findings publicly in an effort to move beyond the first major distraction of Mr. Obama’s transition to power. But the Obama team agreed to withhold the review, officials said, to help Mr. Fitzgerald’s office continue to build its case in the Blagojevich investigation.
“We were prepared to release the findings of the review that had been done, which are thorough and comprehensive,” Mr. Obama said Monday. “There is nothing in the review that was presented to me that in any way contradicted my earlier statements that this appalling set of circumstances that we’ve seen arise had nothing to do with my office.”
He added, “Those facts will be forthcoming to all of you in due course.”
It’s fairly clear that what’s been going on since last Tuesday is that the Obama campaign has, at the request of the United States Attorney, not been releasing as much information as it otherwise might have if this were an ordinary political “scandal.” There’s clearly no evidence of wrongdoing on their part, and the argument that they’re acting against their political interests, even if its true, only makes Alex Knapp’s observation all the more correct:
Frankly, I find it admirable that the incoming president-elect is willing to take a political and reputational hit to do the right thing by helping Fitzgerald put Blagojevich behind bars.
It was no doubt the initial instinct of many of the Clinton-era alums around Obama at the moment — such as Rahm Emanuel and Greg Craig — to respond to this story the way they were taught to after the disaster that was the Lewinsky scandal. The fact that they haven’t, and instead are allowing the legal system to do it’s job is an exercise of prudence that deserves acclaim no matter what side of the political aisle you’re on.