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Obama gets a crisis 'test run'

His third response to the Blagojevich scandal may have been the charm.

December 12, 2008|Peter Nicholas | Nicholas is a writer in our Washington bureau.

WASHINGTON — It took three tries in as many days for President-elect Barack Obama to roll out a strategy for defusing the crisis over Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich's alleged attempt to put his old Senate seat up for sale.

In his initial reaction, Obama said he was saddened by the episode, that he hadn't talked about the Senate seat with Blagojevich and that he wouldn't discuss an ongoing investigation. On day two, he added his name to the avalanche of public officials calling for Blagojevich's resignation, but questions mounted about which members of Obama's staff might have discussed Obama's Senate seat with Blagojevich.

Finally, in a news conference Thursday, Obama pledged to ferret out more facts. He also struck an emotional chord that had been absent. He said he was appalled by the scandal and would quickly release all contacts that his staff had with the Democratic governor, who is accused of seeking favors from the president-elect in exchange for elevating a preferred candidate to the Senate.

Obama's evolving response was the first test of his team's capacity to cope with a fast-moving political scandal while staying true to his promise to run a transparent shop with a minimum of secrets.

"This may be an early test run for his administration," said Scott McClellan, a former White House press secretary for President Bush. McClellan is the author of a book saying the Bush White House was not forthcoming with the public.

"This is how he might handle a scandal within his own administration, even though this may only tangentially involve members of his team," McClellan said.

"Initially, I don't think he quite had his footing. . . . Today, he certainly had his footing under him and is making the right moves in terms of addressing the scandal."

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said: "The first answer -- I don't have any comment on an ongoing investigation -- sounded exactly like the comments we've gotten from President Bush. And I don't think that's much of an answer. The answer that he'll [make public] the complete list is finally the right answer."

After basing his campaign for president on a promise to transform Washington, Obama is obliged to set the highest ethical standards, some government watchdog groups say. His transition co-chair, John Podesta, further raised expectations when he vowed last month to run the most open transition in history.

The complaint filed against Blagojevich said he wanted to talk to one of Obama's aides and ask for help raising up to $15 million for a nonprofit group the governor wanted to create.

Yet top aides to the president-elect, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who has political ties to Blagojevich, have not been made available to reporters.

Emanuel has accompanied Obama to some of his news conferences in Chicago over the last month, standing off to the side with other aides. But since the Blagojevich story broke, he has largely kept out of public view. He was not seen at Obama's latest news conference.

On Thursday, Obama sought to address criticism that he was too tepid in his early reaction to the political scandal that has riveted much of the nation.

"Let me say that I was as appalled and disappointed as anybody by the revelations earlier this week," Obama said.

He sought to reassure people that he had no dealings on the matter with Blagojevich, and that his staff played no part in horse-trading over the Senate seat.

He said: "What I'm absolutely certain about is that our office had no involvement in any deal-making around my Senate seat. That, I'm absolutely certain of. And that is -- that would be a violation of everything that this campaign has been about, and that's not how we do business."

In his effort to distance himself from the scandal, Obama reminded reporters that Blagojevich appeared to have no great affection for him. In one of the conversations taped by prosecutors, Blagojevich is reportedly heard talking about Obama in profane terms because the governor was not being promised anything. The U.S. attorney in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, went out of his way to say Obama had no culpability.

"And you know," Obama said, "I won't quote back some of the things that were said about me. . . . This is a family program, I know."

But in proclaiming that he was not involved, Obama may have made a tactical mistake, some veterans of past White House crises said.

In his initial comments, Obama said he was "not aware of anything that was happening." If that turns out to be premature, it could prove damaging to Obama's credibility given the expectations surrounding his presidency, the former officials said.

Mark Fabiani, a lawyer who represented the White House under President Clinton, said, "When the president-elect says he didn't talk to the governor and didn't know what was going on, that's drawing a line in the sand that you'd better be able to defend.

"It's hard for anyone who's at the top of a sprawling organization like a transition to know everything that's going on. And it's something that may turn out to be 100% true, but it's a red flag that has been raised up. And everybody now is shooting at the red flag: the media, the Republicans."

John W. Dean, a former White House counsel who went to jail in the Watergate scandal, said it was understandable that Obama might have needed a few days to find his voice.

"This sort of thing catches you out of left field," Dean said, "particularly during a transition, which is an incredibly busy time. They're in mild crisis mode all the time anyway trying to get a new government together."

He said Obama's action was "not a stonewalling response."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

Christi Parsons, a writer in our Washington bureau, contributed to this report.

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