James Johnson, the man Democrat Barack Obama chose to head up his vice presidential search team, stepped down amid controversy over alleged sweetheart home loans from Countrywide Financial, a mortgage lender criticized by Obama for its role in the mortgage crisis. Johnson, a former Fannie Mae chairman and the VP vetter for John Kerry in 2004 and Walter Mondale in 1984, said he did not want to be a distraction for the Obama campaign. (Bloomberg)
What the commentators said
“Johnson now joins an intriguing and growing list of Mr. Obama’s ex-associates,” said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial, including Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Fr. Michael Pfleger, and William Ayers. This “eclectic” list of problematic friends shows “a consistent pattern of bad judgment” on Obama’s part.
Questioning Obama’s judgment on this may not be “a great avenue of attack” for Republicans, said Gail Collins in The New York Times, after John McCain just dismissed “a large chunk of the top staff” for being lobbyists. But "talk about unnecessary disasters” for Obama—all the VP background checks are done by hired experts, and choosing Johnson as “the public face of the search” is “like having your career ruined because you invited the wrong person to host a party in honor of your nephew’s godparents.”
If you’d never heard of Johnson before this flap, “don’t worry, you are not alone,” said John Cole in the blog Balloon Juice. “The only thing that matters is who the VP choice will be, not who vetted the choice”—unless the vetter was Dick Cheney, who vetted himself, and “how is that working out for the country?” Despite the full news coverage, “this is really no big deal” for Obama.
It could become a big deal, said Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post’s The Fix blog. “The most dangerous stories for any candidate are those that raise questions about the core of his (or her) campaign narrative”—think the Swift Boating of Kerry. Obama’s core appeal is his “promise of changing the status quo in Washington,” and the spotlight on a Washington insider like Johnson could hurt if it raises questions about the sincerity of that pledge.
Well, say this about Obama, said Jim Hoagland in The Washington Post: He’s “a lot quicker in these post-Jeremiah Wright days to walk away from controversy caused him by others.” But his dismissive “initial reaction” to the Johnson “media scandal” didn’t work. If Obama learns anything from this, it should be that he shouldn’t count on “the media and the public to accept just about any explanation he gives” for the inevitable controversies.