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Is Johnson News a Sign of Weakness in Obama Camp?

Today's news that Jim Johnson, one of three people charged with vetting potential vice presidential candidates for Barack Obama, is stepping down from his role illustrates the perils ahead for the presumptive Democratic nominee as he seeks to preserve his "above politics" image even while pursuing the most powerful job in the world.

After several days of negative news stories detailing Johnson's time as CEO of Fannie Mae and a tepid response by Obama yesterday, the campaign moved swiftly to excise the problem in a statement released moments ago.

"Jim did not want to distract in any way from the very important task of gathering information about my vice presidential nominee, so he has made a decision to step aside that I accept," said Obama. "We have a very good selection process underway, and I am confident that it will produce a number of highly qualified candidates for me to choose from in the weeks ahead. I remain grateful to Jim for his service and his efforts in this process."

Such a clean break demonstrates the danger that being associated with figures like Johnson -- long-time party operatives with a history of potentially controversial business ties -- poses to Obama.

At the core of Obama's appeal to Democrats, independents and even disaffected Republicans is the promise of changing the status quo in Washington. One of Obama's most effective lines on the stump says that until voters change the people they send to the nation's capital, they can't reasonably expect the government to change the way it operates.

People are hungry for that sort of change -- as evidenced not only by Obama's stunning victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries but also by the huge number of people (65 percent or more) who tell pollsters they believe the country is headed off in the wrong direction.

The most dangerous stories for any candidate are those that raise questions about the core of his (or her) campaign narrative. One needs only to look back to the 2004 presidential race for evidence of this trend. John Kerry won the Democratic nomination for a variety of reasons, but the biggest of those was that his military record of service in Vietnam was seen as a shield against Republican attacks on patriotism, national security and foreign policy.

Enter the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with their methods, effectively raised questions about the validity of Kerry's service and, in doing so, sparked broader questions about whether the Massachusetts senator was who he said he was.

For Obama, any questions in voters' minds about whether he truly is a change agent or is legitimately committed to breaking the alleged stranglehold lobbyists and other power brokers have over the political system is potentially disastrous. Because of the peril involved, it's not terribly surprising that Obama moved quickly to "fix the glitch" once he realized questions about Johnson weren't going away.

Seen another way, however, this episode could forebode poorly for how Obama handles the various slings and arrows sent his way by Republicans and their famed -- and effective -- noise machine.

Compare how Obama handled the Johnson situation with the way in which John McCain weathered criticism of lobbyists serving in his high command. Both Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, and Charlie Black, one of his lead strategists, were the subject of an intense series of stories exploring their various connections to the lobbying world and raises questions about whether or not they could reasonably hope to stay on given the new lobbying policy McCain rolled out last month.

Rather than throw the two advisers overboard, McCain and his team kept their head down and tried to weather the storm, which they eventually did. Davis and Black remain in their posts and seem in no imminent danger of being ousted. (It is worth noting that three advisers to McCain -- including a senior-level operative named Tom Loeffler -- were forced to step aside under McCain's new policy.)

For some Democrats, Obama's quick move to separate himself from Johnson will be seen as a caving to Republicans. There will almost certainly be more of these Republican attacks; by removing Johnson, Obama has only emboldened GOPers for the next time around, goes the argument.

Case in point: Republican operatives are seizing on the news to keep firing away at Obama. "If Barack Obama is concerned his campaign's ties to special interests are distracting from his VP search and message, why is Eric Holder still on his search committee? Why is registered federal lobbyist Steve Farber leading the convention for Obama's supposedly 'lobbyist-free' campaign? Obama's hypocritical attacks show he can't stand up to his own standard - and that he just isn't ready to make change," said Alex Conant, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

And this from McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds: "Selecting the vice presidential nominee is the most important decision a presidential candidate can make and one even Barack Obama has said will 'signal how I want to operate my presidency.' By entrusting this process to a man who has now been forced to step down because of questionable loans, the American people have reason to question the judgment of a candidate who has shown he will only make the right call when under pressure from the news media. America can't afford a president who flip-flops on key questions in the course of 24 hours. That's not change we can believe in."

Which view do you think is right? Did Obama do the right thing in breaking ties with Johnson? Or is he setting a dangerous precedent for the remaining five months of the campaign?

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 11, 2008; 3:32 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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