By LIZ SIDOTI (AP)
WASHINGTON — So much for changing how Washington works.
Crimping his carefully crafted outsider image and undercutting a centerpiece of his 2008 campaign, President Barack Obama got caught playing the usual politics — dangling a job offer for a political favor in the hunt for power.
His lawyer admitted as much in a Friday report. It detailed how Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, sent former President Bill Clinton on a mission: try to persuade Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., to abandon his primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., by offering an executive branch post. Sestak said no, stayed in the race and beat the incumbent.
“I can assure the public that nothing improper took place,” Obama had told reporters at the White House on Thursday.
True or not, Obama has a political problem.
Because what did take place was backroom bargaining, political maneuvering and stonewalling, all of which run counter to the higher — perhaps impossibly high — bar Obama has set for himself and his White House to do things differently.
The White House’s reluctant acknowledgment of the chain of events shone a light on the unseemly, favor-trading side of politics — and at an inopportune time for Obama and Democrats as they seek to keep control of Congress.
This election year, angry voters have made clear they have little patience for politics generally and Washington politics specifically. And they are choosing candidates who promise to change the system — and ousting incumbents who fail to deliver.
But what may be even more troubling for the president is the question the episode raises: Has Obama become just like every other politician?
The answer could have implications for him ahead of congressional elections this fall and his likely re-election race in two years.
The White House tried to blunt the media maelstrom by releasing the report on the Friday before a long Memorial Day weekend, when fewer people are paying attention to the news.
White House counsel Robert Bauer said what transpired was neither illegal nor unethical.
But he also said: “There have been numerous reported instances in the past when prior administrations — both Democratic and Republicans and motivated by the same goals — discussed alternative paths to service for qualified individuals also considering campaigns for public office.”
But Obama has held himself to a different standard. By that measurement, and in this case, he failed to deliver.
As a candidate, Obama cast himself as above partisan sniping and political maneuvering — even as he proved to be a shrewd politician able to broker deals. He promised voters turned off by politics and Washington — and yearning for change that this fresh-faced, political newcomer offered — that he would do things differently from his predecessors.
In Obama’s Washington, lobbyists would be banned from serving in his administration, the Democratic National Committee would be barred from accepting money from political action committees, White House visitor logs would be released and reams of information would be posted online.
As president, Obama has turned that vision into reality, albeit with some exceptions. He has trumpeted his goal of an open and transparent administration. He bristles at the notion that his White House is anything but. And in a frustrated tone, he routinely talks like an outsider doggedly working to change the ways of Washington.
But the Sestak incident undercuts all that — a point not lost on Obama’s GOP critics.
It all began when Specter, a veteran GOP senator facing a difficult Republican primary, chose to become a Democrat last year at the White House’s urging. Obama quickly endorsed him and pledged to campaign for him. The White House tried to clear the Democratic field for him.
But Sestak entered the Democratic primary anyway.
At one point during his campaign, he said that a job was offered but he provided no details. The White House deflected repeated questions about the claim, insisting officials did not behave inappropriately while also declining to elaborate.
It wasn’t until Sestak upset Specter in the Democratic primary May 18 that Republicans renewed their pressure on the administration to disclose what happened. Also, two top Democrats — party chief Tim Kaine and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the party’s second-ranking leader in the Senate — said the White House and Sestak needed to address the questions.
In the end, Bauer’s report said this: Emanuel enlisted Clinton’s help as a go-between with Sestak. Clinton agreed to raise the offer of a seat on a presidential advisory board or another executive board if Sestak remained in the House and dropped his bid, “which would avoid a divisive Senate primary.”
Sestak said Clinton called him last summer and raised the possibility, but “I said no.”
The White House hopes the report puts the matter to rest. Republicans will try to make sure it doesn’t.
EDITOR’S NOTE _ Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.