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Obama Worked to Distance Self From Blagojevich Early On
Obama and Blagojevich rarely interacted until Blagojevich ran for governor. Obama told his friends in Springfield that he was unimpressed by Blagojevich's résumé, and he tried to lobby his friend Durbin to enter the race before deciding to support Roland Burris in the Democratic primary.
"When Blagojevich beat me, I told Barack to get on board with him," Burris said. "It was kind of like swallowing his pride a little bit, because he didn't really see that they had anything in common."
About all Blagojevich and Obama shared was searing ambition, which is what occasionally brought them together. Obama recognized that a Democratic governor could help him pass legislation and build his résumé in anticipation of a U.S. Senate run, so he helped Blagojevich's campaign as an informal adviser. Once Blagojevich was elected, he and Obama formed an awkward, arranged marriage: Obama passed a steady succession of legislation and built his reputation as a power player in Springfield; Blagojevich signed the bills and took the center seat at celebratory news conferences.
It worked just fine, Springfield politicians said, until Obama started to eclipse Blagojevich as the rising star in Illinois politics. Blagojevich never endorsed Obama in his U.S. Senate bid in 2004, and he expressed a preference for two other Democratic candidates. On the campaign trail, Obama sometimes made a point to highlight his distance from Blagojevich and the rest of the administration. "Nobody sent me," he often told his crowds.
"The governor didn't offer his support, and to be honest, we didn't really ask for it," said Jim Cauley, a Kentucky native whom Obama hired to run his U.S. Senate campaign. "We weren't going to the old hall or chasing the county chairs. We wanted to show we weren't a part of that world."
While Obama prepared to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, a speech that would launch him to stardom, Blagojevich was back in Springfield watching his own reputation dissolve. After a poor first term, he fought over the state budget with Democratic leaders before flying to Boston and arriving an hour late at a party held in his honor. The event was sparsely attended. Obama made only a brief appearance.
"We have one salvation, and that is Barack," Jacobs, the state senator, said at the time. "It probably knocks Blagojevich down a peg from the leadership chart."
Not long thereafter, Obama started cultivating Illinois leadership of his own. He mentored a basketball buddy, Alexi Giannoulias, and supported his run for state treasurer. He befriended Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Comptroller Daniel W. Hynes. On one night in August, Obama boosted the gubernatorial hopes of all three by inviting each to speak during the opening night of the Democratic convention. Blagojevich watched from his seat.
As Obama went on to win the presidency and his rift with the Illinois governor crystallized, Blagojevich grew increasingly desperate. In phone calls reported in the criminal complaint, he pined for a spot in the Obama administration. Maybe, the governor reasoned, he could let Obama pick his own Senate successor in exchange for a job as an ambassador or as secretary of health and human services. Or maybe Obama could set up Blagojevich's wife, Patricia, with a cushy, high-paid position on a corporate board.
But Blagojevich's solicitations went nowhere, and it became clear that Obama had abandoned him for good.
"They're not willing to give me anything but appreciation," the governor told his chief of staff, John Harris. "[Expletive] them."
Staff writer Peter Slevin in Chicago contributed to this report.