By RICK KLEIN
The figures that matter Thursday morning, in roughly ascending order:
- The number of conversations President-elect Barack Obama didn’t have with Gov. Rod Blagojevich about his vacant Senate seat.
- The number of questions about healthcare Obama will get at his press conference on healthcare Thursday morning.
- The number of Illinois Senate candidates who will hold press conferences as odd as Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s.
- The number of Chicago-datelined Sunday newspaper takeouts in the works that will prominently incorporate the words “Blagojevich,” “Obama,” “Axelrod,” “Jarrett,” “Daley,” “Jackson Jr.,” and “Emanuel.”
- The number of Republican senators who will vote for the auto bailout.
- The number of Obama aides who have (or should have) lawyers lined up for potential grand-jury appearances.
- The number of questions transmitted via the transition team’s “open for questions” feature that are about Blagojevich -- and have therefore been flagged as “inappropriate” by Obama supporters.
Obama faces the press at 11 am ET in Chicago Thursday, as he tries to reassert some control over the news cycle after Blagojevich, D-Ill., wrested it from him in a cloud of profanity and buffoonery.
Obama might say nothing interesting at all. He could cite the ongoing legal investigation, and fall back on platitudes and no-comments. He could chide the media for wanting to focus on scandal and innuendo when he and Tom Daschle want to tackle problems that are critical to the American people.
Or he might make good on his promises of openness and transparency -- and help make his transition his own again.
This represents the biggest moment Obama has to get out in front of a widening public corruption probe in his backyard. A little disclosure -- plus some stronger words from his own mouth condemning the whole episode, and promising justice for all who are involved -- could go a long way.
“Exactly what role he or his team played will be a focus of intense scrutiny in the weeks to come after the arrest of Mr. Blagojevich on accusations that he was plotting to trade or sell the Senate appointment. In that sense, the furor could be the first test of the Obama team’s ability to manage a growing scandal in an era when intense media scrutiny and partisan attack machinery can escalate any flap into a serious political problem,” Peter Baker and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times.
“Mr. Obama’s team has declined for two days to answer questions about what discussions they had about the seat and whether intermediaries had any contacts with Mr. Blagojevich’s advisers,” they write.
“How long can Obama avoid comment?” ABC’s Jake Tapper asked on “Good Morning America” Thursday. “The criminal complaint suggests that the governor was angry that his offer to Obama’s team -- ‘make me a Cabinet secretary and I’ll name your favorite candidate to replace you’ -- was rejected. But who rejected it?”
From the annals of transparency: “Fifty-six questions have come in from people across the country dealing with Blagojevich. Most of them, however, are not readily visible -- one has to use the ‘search’ function to find them,” Tapper reports. “Why? Because users of the Transition website are allowed to ‘flag as inappropriate’ any question they don't like.”
A chance for a do-over? “Obama's call for Blagojevich to step down was in stark contrast to his legalistic initial response to the governor's arrest, which drew criticism from Republicans and bewildered even admirers who expected the incoming president to express more outrage,” Bob Secter and Mike Dorning report in the Chicago Tribune. “Obama's transition team declined to answer questions about the scandal or a continuing investigation that could highlight contacts between the Blagojevich and Obama camps.”
Why it won’t go away: “The President-elect's political universe overlaps uncomfortably with the Illinois governor's seamy world of swagger, cussing and kickbacks,” Time’s Michael Scherer writes. “The criminal complaint, meanwhile, is riddled with mysterious references to unidentified political aides, fundraisers, potential Senate candidates and even a union official who could bring legal scrutiny uncomfortably close to the new Administration.”
Says RNC Chairman Mike Duncan: “Obama’s promise of transparency to the American people is now being tested.”
Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel and Carrie Budoff Brown offer seven questions for the president-elect, including: “When did you learn the investigation involved Blagojevich’s alleged efforts to ‘sell’ your Senate seat, or of the governor’s impending arrest? . . . Do you regret supporting Blagojevich?”
Dick Polman, of the Philadelphia Inquirer: “The bottom line is that the Obama people will need to say more than they have said thus far . . . although it's likely that they'll have to say it to the federal investigators (did Obama remove his close ally Valerie Jarrett from Senate seat consideration because of Blago's slimy maneuverings?). Which means that this probe will drag out for awhile, sharing the headlines with whatever story of the day Obama seeks to promote.”
How to view this tidbit in Obamaland? “A footnote to the 76-page criminal complaint and affidavit charging Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) with soliciting bribes confirms what has long been rumored -- that a former longtime friend and fundraiser for President-elect Barack Obama is talking to federal prosecutors in hopes of a reduced sentence,” Joe Stephens and Carrie Johnson report in The Washington Post.
Can Obama keep it this way? “The criminal complaint against Blagojevich, the nominal head of Obama's home-state party, is a mild embarrassment for the president-elect. But it really does not reflect on Obama, who has kept Blagojevich at arm's length for a long time,” David Broder writes in his Washington Post column.
“The political fallout from the Illinois governor's mushrooming corruption scandal is more pain than peril for President-elect Barack Obama, experts said Wednesday,” James Gordon Meek writes in the New York Daily News. “One informed government official told the Daily News he did ‘not see anything that indicates there's been any contact’ between Team Obama and federal investigators prior to the FBI's Tuesday arrest of the governor.”
“Among Obama's many gifts are luck -- and a knack for not staying long enough in any one place to be corrupted by the local culture,” Newsweek’s Howard Fineman writes. “Luckily for him, the world economy is falling apart, which meant that he was too busy learning about credit default swaps to worry about who he wanted to replace him in his U.S. Senate seat from Illinois.”
No such luck for Rep. Jackson, D-Ill., who will now and forever bear the new label of Senate Candidate 5, after ABC’s Brian Ross affixed the tag Tuesday.
Ross reports: “Jackson Jr.'s attorney James Montgomery confirmed that the Chicago congressman is ‘Senate Candidate #5’ but said ‘Jackson has never authorized anyone to seek the Governor's support in return of money, fundraising or other things of value.’ Jackson said ‘I don't know’ when asked if he was Candidate #5 earlier this morning, but said he was told ‘I am not a target of this investigation.’ ”
Then things got a little weird: “The son of the civil rights leader performed all the usual rituals for a man suddenly in the middle of a scandal. He professed his innocence (‘I am not a target of the investigation’), his humanity (he choked up while speaking of a supportive text message from his sister), his willingness to cooperate with ‘the hardworking men and women of the United States attorney's office,’ and, of course, his refusal to take questions on advice of counsel,” Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post.
“One got the sense that Candidate 5's true sentiment, had he voiced it, would have required a bleep,” Milbank writes.
As for Blago -- Obama and all Senate Democrats want him gone. Legislative leaders are pushing impeachment, and are moving to take Senate appointment power away from him in the meantime. The state attorney general is trying to remove him from office.
And he -- goes to work? “Blagojevich sought to portray an air of normalcy by going to work on his 52nd birthday. But his decision to make a rare visit to his office at the Thompson Center downtown left him dodging news media crowds that swarmed the street outside his North Side home,” Rick Pearson and Monique Garcia report in the Chicago Tribune. “There was no sign that Blagojevich would move quickly to resign, or that he would announce what had been his impending decision on Obama's replacement.”
Remember when this was the big story in town? “Senate Republicans are considering asking Bill Clinton to testify at his wife’s confirmation hearing about potential conflicts of interest involving his worldwide charitable enterprises,” Politico’s Amie Parnes and Glenn Thrush report.
Other transition news: The Daschle pick at HHS becomes formal Thursday.
Next up: the energy and environment team. “ABC News has learned that in a press conference next week, President-elect Obama will announce that Carol Browner will serve as the White House energy ‘czar,’ Nobel Laureate Steven Chu will be his nominee for Secretary of the Department of Energy, and Lisa Jackson will serve as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency,” ABC’s Jake Tapper, Bret Hovell and Sunlen Miller report.
The auto bailout is moving -- but is that about to change? “Senate Democrats and the White House scrambled Wednesday evening to resuscitate a dying auto industry bailout bill, as Senate Republicans appeared unwilling and unable to provide the support necessary to beat back an expected filibuster,” Roll Call’s Emily Pierce and Steven T. Dennis report.
“The House voted 237-170 to approve the package, but in order for it to go through, it will have to pass in the Senate, where at least 10 Republicans will have to vote for it,” ABC’s Jonathan Karl, Z. Byron Wolf, and Kate Barrett report.
Karl Rove charts the GOP’s path back: “Candidates and party leaders must remember who they need to reach -- young voters who tilt Democratic; Hispanics and Catholics; and suburban and exurban families who were bedrock Republicans, but who have become disenchanted with both parties,” Rove writes in his Wall Street Journal column. “The GOP has the right principles to become the majority party again. What it must have are fresh, energetic voices who apply those principles to meeting the needs of American families. And it must put in place the infrastructure that will take that message and amplify it.”
An intriguing piece on The Daily Beast, by Lynn Sherr: “The Laura Bush Backlash.” “Beforehand, a few Council [of Foreign Relations] members told me they were enraged by the timing of Mrs. Bush’s speech, on this date celebrating the bible of the international human rights movement, which was created under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt. ‘Look, there was once a first lady who helped to draft a universal declaration of human rights,’ said Carroll Bogert, associate director of Human Rights Watch and a member of the Council. ‘And maybe the calculation was, why don’t we invite another one to talk about it? But you know, Laura Bush ain’t no Eleanor Roosevelt. What was the Council on Foreign Relations thinking?’ Bogert sent a letter of protest to Council president Richard Haass, but did not get a response from him. She did not attend the speech because she had another date -- at the United Nations, which has just awarded Human Rights Watch its prestigious human rights prize. But she would have boycotted it.”
A last taste of Bush-era comedy: “HBO will air a live telecast in the spring of Will Ferrell's Broadway show ‘You're Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush,’ ” per Variety’s Gordon Cox. “An exact date for the HBO airing has not been confirmed, although it seems likely it would come toward the end of the run of ‘You're Welcome America’ to prevent the telecast from cannibalizing ticket sales for the Broadway engagement. Limited Rialto stint is slated to end March 15.”
“I probably wasn’t in contention -- he didn’t ask me for anything.” -- Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., thankful for the snub.
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ABC News' Hope Ditto contributed to this report.