Obama's Beltway Boys

Barack Obama has spared no criticism about his opponents' coziness with lobbyists and specifically with Hillary Clinton's employ of Mark Penn, a lobbyist representing a trade deal which Clinton opposed. But now that his appointee to vet his vice presidential picks, James Johnson, has been exposed as a Washington insider extraordinaire and the recipient of discounted loans through Countrywide Financial Corp. The reaction is quite different, and frankly bizarre. A press conference Tuesday morning went like this, according to an ABC news report:

"Well, look," Obama said, "the, the, I mean - first of all I am not vetting my VP search committee for their mortgages, so you're going to have to direct -- "

"But shouldn't you?" asked Miller.

"Well, no," Obama said. "It becomes sort of a, um, I mean, this is a game that can be played - everybody, you know, who is tangentially related to our campaign, I think, is going to have a whole host of relationships -- I would have to hire the vetter to vet the vetters. I mean, at some point, you know, we just asked people to do their assignments.

"Jim Johnson has a very discrete task," Obama continued, "as does Eric Holder, and that is simply to gather up information about potential vice presidential candidates. They are performing that job well, it's a volunteer, unpaid position. And they are giving me information and I will then exercise judgment in terms of who I want to select as a vice presidential candidate.

"So this - you know, these aren't folks who are working for me," Obama said. "They're not people you know who I have assigned to a job in a future administration and, you know, ultimately my assumption is that, you know, this is a discrete task that they're going to performing for me over the next two months."

There was more than one curious comment in that tortured explanation. First, Obama contended that he should not have vetted the man who will be instrumental in selecting his vice presidential running mate, the most critical decision he has yet to make. But it seems peculiar that the most critical job in his campaign to date should get, by his own admission, no scrutiny. Moreover, it suggests that Obama may have not even questioned Johnson about any potential conflicts and may have been in the dark about Johnson's widely known reputation as a consummate insider (which of course is utterly at odds with Obama's commitment to throw the rascals out of Washington).

Second, Obama offered that Johnson's task, along with Eric Holder (who we have reported here has problems of his own), is "discrete." Well aside from the candidate himself, most individuals in a campaign have a specific job or area of expertise yet that does not need to diminish the vetting which is needed to determine if they have conflicts in the area for which they will be responsible. Moreover, "discrete" does not mean unimportant.

And finally, as the ABC reporter himself observed, Johnson is by any reasonable definition "working" for Obama.

The media reaction can best be described as stunned. The press conference raised more questions than it answered (Who recommended Johnson? Was Obama unaware of his reputation as a Washington fixer? Did Obama not recognize the potential for claims of hypocrisy?). It also provided the McCain camp with an opening to jab at their opponent. In a statement the McCain camp shot back:

"It's preposterous for Sen. Obama to claim that the leader of his VP selection committee isn't working for him. Barack Obama has castigated Countrywide Financial, but now that Jim Johnson has been exposed for taking sweetheart deals from Countrywide's CEO -- Obama is in a state of denial. It's that brand of weak leadership and hypocrisy that shows why Barack Obama has no record of taking courageous stands or making change in Washington."

The kerfuffle could not have come at a worse time for Obama, as he set out on his economic tour in the first week of the general election. Moreover, concerns about his judgment in assessing those around him already were put back in the mix with the conviction last week of supporter and friend Tony Rezko on multiple criminal charges. The RNC lost no time in making the connection in a statement it released:

"Barack Obama's assertion that he won't vet his own senior aides is totally inconsistent with his rhetoric, but wholly consistent with his own record. This is how Obama ended up in a sweetheart real-estate deal with Tony Rezko, even after it was widely known that Rezko was under investigation. Obama's naive attitude and hypocritical attacks is the sort of politics as usual that voters are sick of."

At a time when Obama is attempting to convince the public that alleged miscreants like Countrywide are to blame for our nation's economic ills, it seems only a matter of time before Johnson will have to be thrown under the proverbial bus to avoid the fast-moving "hypocrisy" storyline.

So the questions raised with regard to Holder, the man at the center of the Clinton's Marc Rich pardon debacle, seem equally apt with respect to Johnson. What criteria does Obama use in selecting key personnel and what do his choices tell us about his ability to lead an effective and scandal-free administration?

Judging from what we have seen, it is increasingly hard to think an Obama administration will represent a change for the better in the way Washington does business.

Editor's Note

After the Obama campaign defended Jim Johnson's ties to Countrywide over the last 24 hours, Johnson tendered his resignation from the steering committee effective immediately.

Johnson said in a statement:

"I believe Barack Obama's candidacy for president of the United States is the most exciting and important of my lifetime," he said, according to a Bloomberg report. "I would not dream of being a party to distracting attention from that historic effort."

No word yet on a replacement for Johnson who was heading up Obama's Vice Presdential selection steering committe.