Politics & Policy

President Hope-and-Sleaze

The Obama administration has betrayed all those who believed its promises of a more elevated politics.

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Let’s be grateful that Barack Obama’s contempt for politics as usual is a matter of public record.

Otherwise, we might be saddled with a White House that offers federal jobs to potential candidates it wants to keep out of Democratic primaries, and does it in such a crude fashion that it skirts the law.

We might witness the release of pertinent news about one of the cases on the Friday before a three-day weekend in one of the oldest, most predictable PR tricks in the book.

We might have to rely on a sketchy document purporting to outline the facts from a conflicted White House counsel that’s a kind of haiku of lawyerly obfuscation.

We might have to read statements from White House officials in the press denying a job was ever offered to one of the candidates, when an e-mail released by the candidate clearly demonstrates an offer of a job.

We might have to tolerate a White House press secretary who dances and spins his way through ethical questions he simply wants to outlast and make go away.

One can imagine the elegant fury that Barack Obama, chin upraised, eyes looking off into the future, once would have summoned to condemn such petty and borderline-corrupt practices. Before, of course, his administration embraced them as a matter of routine. Asked about the job offer to one of the candidates, Rep. Joe Sestak, who challenged and beat Sen. Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, Obama said that “nothing improper took place.”

We’ve gone from “hope and change” to “nothing improper” and “everybody does it” and “many legal experts say it didn’t violate federal law.”

Barack Obama wasn’t like Bill Clinton pledging “the most ethical administration in history.” Anyone who had paid attention to Clinton or his campaign knew to hide the silverware, and maybe the interns. Obama made a high-minded, ethical politics absolutely central to his appeal, and yet hasn’t betrayed the slightest reflex to deliver on it.

The job offers to Sestak and Democratic Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff, challenging incumbent Michael Bennet, aren’t Watergate; they may not deserve a “-gate” suffix at all. But they are remarkably ham-handed instances of the transactional, bullying politics in which Obama’s team specializes, despite working for the most sanctimonious man in America.

Romanoff had applied for a USAID job at the beginning of the administration. That went nowhere. Suddenly, when mulling a challenge against the White House’s preferred candidate, Senator Bennet, he became just what USAID needed. White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina e-mailed him information about three jobs that would be available if he dropped his bid.

This is the supposed non-offer of a job. It contrasts with the Sestak case, which involves the supposed offer of a non-job — an unpaid advisory gig for which Sestak was ineligible.

The White House is slicing it so thin because an explicit quid pro quo would run afoul of federal law. If no one should be braying for Jim Messina to be frog-marched from the White House, neither should we trust the White House to investigate itself. Its strategy is to release the minimum increment of information necessary to pronounce the matter “old news.”

It certainly has nothing to fear from the reliably house-trained attorney general, Eric Holder. He has opened a flimsy criminal inquiry into BP to abet the White House’s shame-and-blame campaign, but would be hard-pressed to investigate White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel even if $100,000 showed up in his freezer. The White House will be forced to release more information, or refer the matter to the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, only if the press holds the Obama administration to the same standard as all other administrations.

Until such time, we can ponder the lesson the affair offers to all those dear souls who bought Barack Obama’s hopemongering patter about a new kind of politics: Never, ever believe.

— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.


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