Obama's rusty machine politics

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; 9:16 AM

The Obama team's detractors have long accused them of bare-knuckled, head-butting, Chicago-style political warfare.

If that's the case, the Windy City should be insulted. This crowd isn't very good at strong-arming anyone.

"Chicago" was always a lazy journalistic shorthand, a way of branding the political style of Rahm, Axe and Barack. And the phrase carried a particular punch because Obama has tried to position himself as a post-partisan president.

But reporters have to be careful not to convict Obama of high crimes and misdemeanors for practicing politics as usual.

First the White House made a clumsy attempt to muscle David Paterson out of the New York governor's race (it took a New York Times scandal story to force his withdrawal). Then there was the attempt to persuade Joe Sestak not to challenge Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. Turns out the congressman (who beat Specter last month) was asked by Bill Clinton to consider an unpaid, advisory board job. If that's all it was, the story remains a nothing-burger.

Now comes the tale of Andrew Romanoff, a Colorado Democrat. The White House didn't want him to challenge the appointed senator, Michael Bennet. Obama's deputy chief of staff, Jim Messina, contacted Romanoff last September to see if he was still interested in a post at the Agency for International Development -- which the former state house speaker had applied for after the 2008 election -- or whether he was definitely running for the Senate. Romanoff, who says three possible jobs were discussed, told Messina he was committed to the race, and no offer was made.

If that is indeed what took place, I don't see the scandal. Was the White House trying to entice Romanoff out of running against its preferred candidate? Of course. But these sorts of would-you-be-interested talks take place in every administration. (Robert Gibbs said yesterday that the president didn't know about the Romanoff talks.)

You could argue that Obama removed Hillary Rodham Clinton as a potential rival by offering her -- an incumbent senator -- the job of running the State Department. How about when Obama asked Sen. Judd Gregg to join his Cabinet, which would have knocked a popular Republican out of his New Hampshire seat?

Yes, there's a law governing such transactions, but the fact that it's so rarely used suggests that it is aimed at outright coercion, not routine politics.

ABC's Jake Tapper recalls a 1981 incident involving Reagan's political director, Ed Rollins, and struggling California Sen. S.I. Hayakawa: "Asked by an Associated Press reporter if President Reagan would offer Hayakawa a job if he decided not to run for reelection, Rollins, underlined that the White House was not negotiating with Hayakwa but said: 'If the senator chooses, on his own initiative, not to run for re-election, I'm sure the president would be willing to offer him a substantial administration post.' "

The Obama White House fueled suspicions by dragging out its explanations of what happened, especially in the Sestak case. Again, these folks are not living up to the Chicago brand (which will get a further airing with the opening of Blago's trial Thursday).

So my question: Are the media making too much of these conversations, or not enough?

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