Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Obama Defense of Johnson Raises More Questions

From Washington Post's The Trail By Dan Balz on June 11, 2008:
"The most important decision Barack Obama will make between now and the November election is the selection of a vice presidential running mate. That makes all the more remarkable his effort Tuesday to suggest that the people he has put in charge of helping make the decision are somehow not really part of his campaign.

Obama is on the defensive over his selection of James A. Johnson, the former CEO of Fannie Mae, to help lead the vice presidential search process, a role he played for John F. Kerry four years ago.

Johnson is drawing fire over his jumbo home loans from Countrywide Financial, a major actor in the subprime mortgage mess, that may have been below market rates. The loans were first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Johnson also has drawn criticism in the past for his role in generous compensation packages to executives of companies on whose boards he served.

At a news conference in St. Louis yesterday, Obama was asked about Johnson and the fact that the candidate has often criticized the activities of Countrywide. Rather than defend his choice, he sought to suggest that the role Johnson is playing is only tangential to his campaign and that it is impossible for the campaign to vet the vetters.

"Jim Johnson has a very discrete task, as does Eric Holder [another member of the VP search team], and that is simply to gather up information about potential vice presidential candidates," Obama responded. "They're performing the job well. It's a volunteer, unpaid position and they're giving me information, and I will then exercise judgment in terms of who I'll want to select as a vice presidential candidate. So these are folks who are working for me, not people who I have assigned to a particular job in the future administration, and ultimately, my assumption is, is that this is a discrete task they'll be performing over the next two months."

The distinctions Obama tried to draw raise other questions. Is he suggesting that Johnson, who is not paid, is exempt from campaign strictures that might apply to the lowliest paid staffers? Is he suggesting that Johnson, while overseeing some of the most sensitive work underway in the campaign, will act merely as a transmission belt for information scooped up from any and all available sources? Is he suggesting he would not select Johnson for a role in his administration? Or that different rules would apply to those he might select than those who play central roles in the campaign?

Johnson can certainly defend himself, if he needs defending. He is a skilled and discreet Washington insider and veteran political powerbroker whose advice and judgment are valued by people like Obama and Kerry and scores of other powerful politicians and business executives. Nor are all the details of the Countrywide transactions known, although the Journal story said Johnson received a favorable interest rate. A lawyer for Johnson told the Journal that the loans were within standard practice in the industry, given someone "of Mr. Johnson's background."

All of this will be sorted out in the days ahead. But in the meantime, for Obama to suggest that Johnson is floating in some outer orbit of his campaign raises questions about the candidate's willingness to deal forthrightly with controversy. Presidential candidates long have turned to trusted and loyal advisers and potential administration officials to help run vice presidential search operations. Is there any reason to think Obama has not done the same?

The last two presidents tapped the advisers who oversaw the vice presidential selection process to play enormously important roles in their administration. Warren Christopher ran Bill Clinton's search process in 1992 and ended up as secretary of state. Dick Cheney ran the process for George W. Bush and in a remarkable twist ended up as the vice president -- perhaps the most powerful ever. It is not unreasonable to think that Johnson could end up playing a significant role in an Obama administration.

There are many ways Obama and his team could be responding to this, but they are doing what they've done in the past when turbulence hits, which is to hunker down, stick to their talking points and wait for the storm to pass, which it often has.

David Axelrod, Obama's senior strategist, echoed the candidate during a Wednesday morning interview on MSNBC. "He's a volunteer and the job is just to gather information, period," he said of Johnson. He went on to say, "He's not leading the vetting. There's a committee that's vetting these candidates. He's part of that committee."

It isn't clear whether the uproar over Johnson is a passing storm or a more serious problem for the Obama campaign. For now, the campaign has decided to treat it as a minor annoyance that will soon disappear. But the candidate's response has raised questions about the candidate himself that could well linger past the moment."