Testing Obama’s Meddle

Illustration by Dan Goldman

The only Barack Obama birth story that really matters is now conclusively settled. Yes, he came into this world in a Honolulu hospital. But even if he’d been secretly delivered in Indonesia or Kenya or a stable in Bethlehem, his attempt to push Governor David Paterson out the door ratifies the location of Obama’s most important nativity: He is from Chicago. That’s Obama’s political birthplace. And no matter his gifts for soothing, post-partisan rhetoric, Obama plays the game by the hardball, cold-blooded rules he learned in Chicago.

As well he should. Whoever is president is also the leader of his political party, and he faces an opposition using any tactics necessary to stop him. Obama’s move against Paterson, and his selection of Democratic candidates in races from Colorado to Pennsylvania, isn’t dramatically different from the behavior of previous administrations, of both parties. (The most ridiculous commentary on the Obama-Paterson dance came from Karl “Permanent Republican Majority” Rove, who criticized the president for his clumsy meddling in state politics. Please.)

Obama’s talk of rising above partisan politics in Washington never meant he was going to unilaterally disarm. That’s why he made Rahm Emanuel, another aggressive Chicagoan, his chief of staff. And that’s why he tried to boot Paterson: to give New York Democrats a better shot at winning the governor’s race in 2010, to calm New York congressional Democrats who are scared that having Paterson at the top of the ticket will put their own seats at risk, and to give New York Democrats a better chance of keeping control (ha-ha) of the State Legislature—which in turn would allow Democrats to control redistricting in 2011. The administration was annoyed by Paterson’s recent comments about a racist backlash against him and Obama, and the president seems viscerally chafed by Paterson’s sloppiness. But this was business.

What’s surprising, however, is that the White House doesn’t seem to have learned much from its first attempt to shape New York politics. Last winter, the president made it clear he wanted the governor to choose Caroline Kennedy as Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate replacement. Paterson proved unpredictable and contrary, to say the least: A large part of why he picked Kirsten Gillibrand was precisely because the White House and Nancy Pelosi asked him not to. And even though Obama’s instincts were forged in Chicago, his political director is a New York guy. Patrick Gaspard knows—and dislikes—Paterson from his years crafting political strategy at New York’s powerful hospital-workers union. Gaspard shouldn’t have been shocked that Paterson, in a September 14 meeting, seemed to be willing to gracefully step aside, only to turn around days later and do the exact opposite.

It’s worth remembering another detail from the Caroline Kennedy mess. When her last-minute withdrawal threatened to embarrass Paterson, bogus allegations about problems in her marriage and in her tax returns were suddenly fed to the papers by “a source close to the governor.” This time, Paterson’s loyalists saw an opportunity to make him look sympathetic. Even as headlines blared that Paterson was “doomed,” his camp was strangely happy. Coupling this with an appeals-court ruling that approved Paterson’s installation of Richard Ravitch as lieutenant governor, his team saw the beginnings of a Paterson revival; a campaign source claims that volunteers and donations started pouring in after Obama’s maneuver. A Marist poll showed that, indeed, Obama’s intervention had generated a burst of sympathy for the governor, with 62 percent saying the president was wrong to butt in. Paterson remained badly wounded, politically, but he seemed newly determined to stick around and make things messy for his enemies, starting with Andrew Cuomo.

Then Paterson went and told the AP he never really wanted to be governor, stepping on his own momentum. It’s the Chicago style to move directly and decisively, to be the boss. But the president and his crew must be wondering if they’d have been better off simply ignoring David Paterson and letting him talk his way out of office.

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Testing Obama’s Meddle