CHICAGO - Despite often-lofty rhetoric that he plans to bring the nation a “new kind of politics,” Sen. Barack Obama has surrounded himself with operatives skilled in the old-school art of the political back stab.
Yet when Obama was criticized this week for opposition research memos critical of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s ties to India and Indian-Americans, he was quick to blame his staff.
“It was a screw-up on the part of our research team,” he told editors and reporters with The Des Moines Register. “It wasn’t anything I had seen or my senior staff had seen.”
That is starting to sound familiar. It was at least the third time since February the Illinois Democrat has blamed his staff for a glitch.
When Obama assembled his crew early this year, he brought together a team with a long track record for the sort of caustic rhetoric he has pledged to avoid, just as other presidential candidates have done by hiring people similarly talented in the art of opposition research and attack. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., even hired some of the very people that trashed his 2000 presidential bid.
From his campaign headquarters on the 11th floor of a high-rise on Michigan Avenue, Obama’s political warriors range from a research director with extensive experience in throwing darts from Democratic National Committee’s offices to a communications director who once worked for a group that ran a controversial attack ad that compared Howard Dean to Osama bin Laden.
Obama’s latest campaign hiccup started with documents that sarcastically questioned Clinton’s ties to India that were pitched to reporters on a not-for-attribution basis. The documents later became public, angering many Indian-American supporters.
The documents questioned links Clinton, D-N.Y., and her husband, the former president, had with various companies that outsource American jobs. One included a headline that referred to Clinton as the Democratic senator from Punjab, a reference to a joke Clinton had made last year at a fundraiser.
In making his apologies for the flap, Obama sought to reassert one of his strongest selling points: that he is an agent of change who is capable of changing the tone of the nation’s political debate. But as Obama and his handlers well know, it is a tricky balance between staying above the fray and proving to Democratic activists that you are tough enough to take on the Republican nominee.
“There are times where I find myself slipping into the sort of caustic tit-for-tat politics I think is typical,” Obama told Iowa’s largest newspaper. “The environment pushes you in that direction oftentimes.”
Such statements have created a higher standard for Obama, one that does not always jive with the group of political operatives who encircle him.
Obama’s research director, Devorah Adler, for example, was tied to a controversial 2005 Democratic National Committee research memo distributed to reporters on a not-for-attribution basis about then-Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. It suggested he had participated in “anti-civil rights and anti-immigrant rulings” as a judge and had failed to win mobster convictions as a prosecutor.
Obama’s campaign declined to say whether Adler had seen the India documents before their release or whether she is part of the senior staff. “We’re not going to get into the internal machinations,” spokesman Bill Burton said.
Obama’s communications director and one of his closest advisers, meanwhile, was once employed by a group that ran a television ad shortly before the 2004 Iowa caucuses that used a picture of bin Laden to criticize Dean’s foreign policy credentials at a point when Dean was the Democratic front-runner.
At the time, Robert Gibbs was working with a shadowy group called Americans for Jobs, Health Care & Progressive Values. The so-called 527 political group paid for the ad, but refused to disclose in a timely manner who was financing the effort because federal law did not require it to do so.
Shortly after the ads started running, a labor union that had endorsed Democratic rival Richard Gephardt of Missouri acknowledged contributing $50,000 to the group, but said the ads had gone too far.
The group had begun running ads in Iowa in early December 2003. One that ran before the bin Laden ad had featured Dean, side-by-side with President Bush and compared their records of support for the National Rifle Association.
Gibbs was also involved in a dust-up in February from which Obama was quickly forced to distance himself.
When Obama contributor and Hollywood mogul David Geffen slammed the Clintons, triggering the Clinton campaign to demand that Obama return money Geffen had raised for Obama, Gibbs showed his campaign could play tough.
“We aren’t going to get in the middle of a disagreement between the Clintons and someone who was once one of their biggest supporters,” he said at the time. “It is ironic that the Clintons had no problem with David Geffen when he was raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln bedroom.”
Obama later distanced himself from that comment, saying he had been flying from Los Angeles to Iowa at the time. “I told my staff that I don’t want us to be a party to these kinds of distractions because I want to make sure that we’re spending time talking about issues,” he said. “My preference going forward is that we have to be careful not to slip into playing the game as it customarily is played.”
In a lower profile incident, Obama also blamed his staff in May for his missing an event for firefighters in New Hampshire. “My staff had already scheduled some things and they couldn’t wiggle out if it,” he said at the time. “They heard from me a little bit because I wasn’t happy I couldn’t be there personally.”