For all the talk about their mastery of Chicago "machine style" politics, Barack Obama's political team is having a lot of trouble fixing the political situation in his home state. The takeover Friday of Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias' family bank was long predicted.
His campaign focus-grouped several different advertisements to try to take ownership of the narrative.
Republicans won't let up -- they've accused Giannoulias of being the CEO of a mob bank, one that lent a lot of money to not-so-nice folks. The question's been surfaced: couldn't the White House have prevented this developing catastrophe that now threatens his home Senate seat? If they knew Giannoulias would be so toxic, why did allow this bond to mature?
The White House will say that, first, they tried. They wanted Attorney General Lisa Madigan to enter the race but failed to persuade her. Beyond that, they said, the intersection of Obama's personal relationship with Giannoulias -- the two men are best friends going back to Harvard Law School -- with the practical realities of trying to manipulate the primary process in Illinois proved too difficult. Several top Obama advisers, including David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, have always worried about Obama's "ties" to Giannoulias, even urging Obama to avoid helping Giannoulias' state treasurer campaign in 2006. Obama ignored this advice. Even though a phone call from the president asking Giannoulias to leave the Senate race would have resulted in Gennoulias's leaving the Senate race, it appears that no one wanted to ask Obama to make the call.
Now it's just a mess. The White House is not trying to push Giannoulias out of the race at the moment. They want to wait and see how the bank closure plays out. They assume that if Giannoulias drops steadily in the polls, he will get the hint, being ambitious but not to the point of blind arrogance.
Then the state's 19 central committee chairs would decide the nominee. That's where another Madigan -- Michael Madigan, Lisa Madigan's father -- comes into play. He's the party chair. And his principal concern is to hold on to his statehouse majority. He's not the type of pol who'd be receptive to pressure from the White House.
There is one other matter. President Obama does not feel responsible for having created the morass from which the Illinois party must escape. So he does not particularly enjoy being told that he has to be the one with the rope doing the pulling. That said, if Giannoulias keeps his standing in the polls to within a few points of Mark Kirk, there's a good chance that Obama will campaign for his old friend.
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Marc Ambinder is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.