A friend of Jim Johnson, the Washington player who resigned Wednesday as an unpaid veep-vetter for Barack Obama, tells me that Johnson woke up that morning, looked at the newspapers, saw that he had become a front-page problem for Obama–after The Wall Street Journal a few days earlier had reported that Johnson had received too-sweet home loans from Countrywide Financial–and made the snap decision to quit. By the end of the day, Johnson, who had canceled appointments he had lined up for the day, had left Washington and was in Sun Valley.
It was a quick end to the controversy. Obama fans can be encouraged by the fact that decisive action was taken fast. But Obama initially defended Johnson. So perhaps Obama himself was hoping to ride this one out, even though the episode had the potential to undermine his message of change.
The selection of Jim Johnson was itself troubling–whether or not Johnson did anything wrong regarding his dealings with Countrywide. He’s a longtime Democratic Party insider, a “big-business Democrat,” as Craig Crawford put its, who headed Fannie Mae in the 1990s and forged a close relationship with Countrywide. He’s no agent of change in Washington.
The Democratic Party is full of “wise” men and women who jump between government jobs, campaigns, and well-paid private gigs. They can be campaign strategists one year, and corporate consultants or lobbyists the next–or sometimes, as in the case of Mark Penn, both at once. They are part of Washington’s permanent establishment. And some will be making a beeline to the Obama campaign, now that he’s the party’s presumptive nominee.
To keep his message of change clear and honest, Obama is going to have to say no to these folks, even though they might come with experience and the best of intentions. He’s already told Democratic lobbyists they cannot contribute to his campaign. And he will have to extend the rope-line further. Here’s a suggestion: he should designate within his campaign an aide to be a “change ombudsman.” This person will vet the vetters and everyone else working at a high level for the campaign to make certain none are agents of the status quo.
I’m being only semi-facetious. The Obama campaign will be growing now that he’s the all-but-nominated nominee and absorbing Hillaryites and others. Someone on the Obama staff ought to be watching so that no other “big-business Democrats” are placed in positions where their mere presence could undercut Obama’s overall message.
Obama’s going to have a tough time working and calculating his relationship with the party establishment. (Remember all the corporate-sponsored sky boxes at past Democratic party conventions?) Some party insiders have gotten used to doing well in addition to doing good. Jim Johnson, for instance, was an advocate of extremely generous compensation packages for CEOs, made his own bundle at Fannie Mae, and benefited from accounting manipulations there (though he was never accused of wrongdoing).
Johnson is a warning for the Obama campaign. Beware the consummate Washington players who stock campaigns, transition teams, and administrations. Many are not in it for the change.