Obama's unsatisfyingly vague response to the Blagojevich scandal.

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Dec. 9 2008 7:12 PM

What Didn't He Know, and When Didn't He Know It?

Obama's unsatisfyingly vague response to the Blagojevich scandal.

When a president-to-be does anything for the first time, it's interesting. Today we saw Barack Obama give his first denial related to a scandal. It's good practice, because sooner or later, a scandal (real or manufactured) will confront him while he's in office. As New York Sun reporter Josh Gerstein (I think it was he) used to joke: On any given day, you could ask President Clinton, "Mr. President what about the allegations?"

How did Obama do when asked about Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's effort to hawk his Senate post? It was a bit of a muddle.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Obama was asked: "Were you aware at all about what was happening with your Senate seat?" He responded: "I had no contact with the governor or his office and so we were not, I was not aware of what was happening." He didn't want to go any further, citing the ongoing investigation.

It's hard to know what to make of this. As I wrote initially, Obama and his team come off quite well in the indictment. They didn't want to pay-or-play in any of the governor's games. In fact, this is what seems to have propelled Blagoevich into several bouts of plenteous profanity.

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But Obama's answer wasn't terribly nourishing. First, as Jake Tapper notes, this seemed to contradict a statement last month by David Axelrod, Obama's top strategist. "I know he's talked to the governor," Axelrod said about the Senate seat, "and there are a whole range of names, many of which have surfaced, and I think he has a fondness for a lot of them."

The second part of Obama's answer was so vague as to be nearly meaningless. "I was not aware of what was happening" can mean anything you want it to. It can mean you weren't aware of anything relating to the Senate seat, or that you weren't aware the governor was trying to sell the Senate seat, or that you weren't aware the governor was under federal investigation for trying to sell the Senate seat. Or it could mean you were not aware that Blagojevich was using hairspray (or not, as the case may be).

The answer has the whiff of imprecision we're familiar with from politicians. They want to sound definitive without being definitive. But it's also true that officials can also run into trouble by acting in good faith. They try to give a short, simple, digestible denial, and by going for brevity, they unwittingly leave a door open. Was Obama purposefully trying to be unclear? It's hard to say. It's a little hard to believe that he didn't know anything that was happening relating to his old seat. Maybe he's just really, really focused—though he did say on Meet the Press, when ducking a question about Caroline Kennedy being appointed senator from New York, "The last thing I want to do is get involved in New York politics. I've got enough trouble in terms of Illinois politics."

Obama refused to elaborate on the Blagojevich business, citing the ongoing investigation. But an Obama aide responded to my questions by telling me that Axelrod was mistaken.

So much for the first part of the president-elect's answer. We now know, according to transition officials, that Obama did not speak with the governor or anyone else from his office about who would replace him.

What we don't know, and what the aide would not address, is what Obama meant by the second part of his statement. Did he really know nothing at all about what Blagojevich was doing with his Senate seat? If so, that would seem to be as easy to clear up as the Axelrod mix-up. But the aide wouldn't go any further. This could just be a function of an aide not wanting to speak for the next president. That's a healthy instinct—for the aide's survival and for all of us.

So we're left with vagueness. Why does it matter? It always matters when a politician won't say the simple thing. Maybe it matters a little more with Obama, who can answer the dickens out of a question when he wants to. There's evidence that Obama wanted Valerie Jarrett to take his seat—the governor sure seemed to think the president-elect wanted that. Suddenly, in the middle of the process, Obama stopped wanting that. Why?

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