Will the Blagojevich Scandal Jeopardize Obama's Trustworthy Image?
Over the last eight years, the Bush administration's most effective communications tools were secrecy and subterfuge. When President Bush or a member of his Cabinet refused to pass along public information, it initially implied a great authoritative role, someone who was privy to such dangerous information that hardly any records could be passed along to the public. Americans, suddenly feeling vulnerable to terrorist attacks and international conflicts, viewed secrecy as an indicator of trust -- President Bush was in control.
Since then, President Bush's evasive tactics and refusal to cooperate with the public have resulted in an overwhelming number of Americans demanding accountability and transparency from their representatives. His tactics failed -- Americans realized that greater information helps us understand security risk; and now we pressure our candidates to disclose as much information as possible.
President-elect Obama rose to the challenge. Despite record-breaking donations throughout the campaign, Obama still managed to fully disclose almost 93% of his finance reports -- we know the source of virtually all his campaign dollars and what they funded in this campaign. His transition website, www.change.gov is opening the democratic process to the online community and generates an honest and open political dialogue. He even required that former president Bill Clinton reveal all 200,000 names on his donor list before he enlisted Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.
President-elect Obama's platform of openness generated a national sense of trust that Bush could never achieve. 67% of Americans are confident in Obama's ability to be president.
So how will Obama fare in the Blagojevich scandal? So far, it seems he and incoming Chief of Staff have taken the high road -- refusing to buckle to the governor's corruption.
So far his approval ratings have helped him move past this issue without too much notice -- his extraordinary history of complete honesty and disclosure has led to a clean political reputation. Reputation management is like putting deposits in the bank. We work with a company called dna13 in Ottawa that does real-time reputation management. Tracking online reputation is critical.
There are also zero tangible connections between Obama and any sort of unscrupulous behavior. There is no evidence of Obama's team ever giving money to Blagojevich -- the Illinois governor made that clear in his profane FBI tapes.
However, the initial response that President-elect Obama's transition team inaccurately offered was that Obama was so far removed from Blagojevich's endeavor to replace him that no one from the transition committee had spoken to Governor Blagojevich at all. Later, both Emanuel and David Axelrod reveal some contact.
It's clear why the transition team would take this position. Any sort of connection to the Blagojevich bribery trial could reverse his overwhelming popularity and indicate a return to the conspiracy theories that were prevalent before Election Day. There were an infinite number of pre-election conspiracy stories that labeled Obama as everything from a terrorist to a socialist.
Obama had always been able to respond to these accusations immediately through clear evidence and direct arguments. However, we now know that Rahm Emmanuel did contact Blagojevich with a list of candidates approved by the transition office (note: not a monetary transaction). We have also heard that the Obama team asked Blagojevich to select Valerie Garrett as the next Illinois senator, but refused to pay his $10 million bribe request.
If Obama had addressed concerns regarding his financial relationship with Blagojevich directly, his "Honest Ob'" reputation wouldn't be at risk at all. He could have used his overwhelming popularity as leverage against this communication crisis and admitted that, while he did have some contact, he's not the other party in a bribery scandal.
Obama has more to lose from secrecy than from being candid about his (decidedly minimal) contact with the Illinois governor. His openness redefined politics; the pressures of political leadership cannot stand in the way of the progress that Obama already made. Now is the time for Obama to stay transparent and accountable, even when it's risky -- that's when it makes the most difference to the American public.
Ashley Houghton contributed to this article (Ashley@michaelsmith.biz).