While the Blagosphere has been almost entirely consumed with our governor’s corruption and the state fair auction-like atmosphere that surrounded the Senate seat appointment, some bloggers on the left have begun noticing that reporting and commentary have tried to make the Blagojevich scandals into a serious problem for Obama, despite the evidence that shows Blagojevich to be deeply hostile to the President-elect and shows the latter to be uninvolved in any of the governor’s (alleged) crimes. One reason why this is happening is that a lot of journalists and pundits have become bored with the transition. It’s been going reasonably well, and it has been run so competently and with such an obvious emphasis on establishment-friendly appointments and merit (at least as merit is conventionally defined by that establishment) that most observers have been hungry for something else to talk about, and what better than a scandal involving all of the themes of the “old” politics, complete with bribery and shakedowns? You already have the makings of an overreaching and misleading narrative: “old Illinois politics mars transition period for Obama.”
On top of all of this, there is the problem that most people, especially journalists and pundits and even more particularly pundits on the right, seem to go through extreme mood swings when they talk and think about Obama. This is the tendency to swing between treating him, in John Kass’ memorable phrase, as the Mr. Tumnus of politics to regarding him as the canny Chicago pol, the Obama David Brooks referred to as “Fast Eddie,” or in other cases going between debating ridiculously whether he is more Maoist than Stalinist and then rejoicing childishly over the “centrism” of his appointments. In the mainstream media, it has gone from early adulation over the promised reform and transformation of Washington (whence the Messiah Watch) to a desire to play up conflict between Obama and the left, and now this latter theme has been partially replaced by the “Blagojevich taint” narrative.
Having finally recognized that Obama is a savvy political operator who is interested in effective government to pursue what are still broadly progressive goals, and having started to grasp that Obama is not a neo-McGovernite radical dove but is actually rather hawkish and establishmentarian in his instincts, the next thing for journalists and pundits to fixate on would have to be ethics and the political career in Illinois that virtually everyone ignored while they, again mostly in the mainstream press and on the right, were obsessing over his religious or tangential associations. Here we see the collective disbelief that a savvy Chicago pol could be at once more or less indifferent to the corruption of the machine politics around him (a guy who “won’t make no waves and won’t back no losers,” as Kass put it over six months ago), while nonetheless being free from any personal involvement in that corruption. People have a hard time making sense of a politician who can appear as the friend of the Hyde Park Independents and the Daley machine when each connection suits him, because it isn’t supposed to work that way.
Obama never transcends categories, as some people seemed to hope he could at one time, but he isn’t easily pigeonholed into any category, either, because he is very, very adaptable (which his admirers call “pragmatism”!). Just as they misjudged his political know-how because of his high-flown rhetoric, and just as they misjudged his foreign policy because of his opposition to the Iraq war, they are going to misjudge him again and try to tie him to Illinois corruption or claim that this reflects poorly on him or “taints” the incoming administration. Those who say this will be proven wrong again, and much to the frustration of his critics and enemies Obama will keep evading the categories and labels people try to stick to him and will separate himself from any associate, no matter how close or distant, the moment that associate becomes a liability.