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What Blagogate Says About Obama

12:59 PM, Dec 10, 2008 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Ben Smith:

Perhaps the best way to see him is as a neutral in the (lopsided) battle between machine and reformers in Illinois. That's the stance he took in a defining battle, the 2006 contest for the presidency of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Reformers fault him for failing to support their champion; but he didn't endorse the machine favorite either. He stayed on the sidelines, and kept his focus on the White House. You can accuse him of cowardice for that, or you can grant him that he had decided to devote himself to larger causes and ambitions than Illinois political reform.

This was one of the central criticisms of Obama throughout the campaign -- that he'd always put his political ambition first (in contrast to candidates who put country first, not that anyone would ever question Obama's position). He probably couldn't have risen so far so fast if he hadn't played ball. But maybe what was a liability for Obama as a candidate -- his general go along to get along political philosophy -- will be an asset as president. President Bush risked his political fortunes on a war with Iraq, and one imagines that most liberals would prefer he'd simply played it safe. Likewise, conservatives may be relieved to know that Obama is disinclined to do anything that could hurt his reelection prospects, or his legacy. Which might explain why Obama's assembled a national security team that will prevent the left from acting on its worst impulses -- quick withdraw from Iraq, presidential diplomacy with rogue states -- in favor of a go along to get along foreign policy.

Obama pledged to change Washington and to take on the establishment, but the Blago affair shows that's just not how Obama works. And the left seems to be lowering its own expectations in light of that reality. John Judis, for example, says that Obama will continue the Bush administration's foreign policy, and that such continuity will be a good thing. Judis offers a whole list of Bush administration accomplishments over the last two years (somehow omitting the surge), and attributes all of them to the return of realism, and the purge of neoconservatives, in administration policymaking. If imagining that's true helps Judis sleep at night, fine. For Republicans it should be enough that Obama will continue the policies, some successful and some completely flawed, set in motion by the Bush administration. Things could have been much, much worse -- and they may yet be.