Fineman: The Problem With Obama's Veep Vetter

We know John McCain: as formed and familiar as a well-worn boot. But we don't know Barack Obama very well, and getting to know him has been and remains the basic national task of 2008.

With less than five months until Election Day, there isn't much time left for research. And because Obama still is wet clay, not yet fixed in the public mind, every news cycle, speech, sound bite (or nibble) and video stream takes on huge evidentiary significance. Almost everything is, as they say in the law, a case of first impression.

Which is why his relationship—now abruptly ended—with a wealthy Democratic Washington denizen named Jim Johnson is way more than a mere Inside-the-Beltway story. It's a deeply revealing episode from beginning to end.

What we learn is that Obama by instinct is no revolutionary, but rather a soothing semi-insurgent seemingly eager to reassure the very Establishments he claims to be eager to assault. We learn that he has yet to master the art of keeping his cool when someone (an opponent or the press) has the temerity to question his decision-making. We learn that his first instinct is to brush off criticism with a flick of a finger.

But we also learn that Obama has absorbed much from his crash course in presidential campaigning. One lesson he has internalized is how to cut his losses quickly. It took him months to ditch the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity Church of Christ. It took him weeks to distance himself from the likes of Samantha Power.

It took Obama only a day to throw Johnson under the bus.

The original, revealing mistake, of course, was tapping Jim Johnson in first place to be the guy to vet Obama's vice presidential choices.

On one level, and at first glance, Johnson seemed to be the perfect, even unavoidable, choice. He is a fixture here; he is what passes for a Washington wise man these days. The son of a prominent Minnesota Democratic legislator, he came to Washington in the 1970, part of the "Minnesota Mafia" that surrounded Walter Mondale.

Tall and courtly, Johnson was not a lawyer, but had the bearing of one. He was famous for his starched white shirts and corporate demeanor. He ran Mondale's 1984 presidential race, a disaster that lost 49 states, yet Johnson somehow emerged with his reputation for probity and good management enhanced. He has been involved as a top inside political player in almost every Democratic general-election campaign since. He was closer to the Clintons, of course, but also had made a shrewd decision to move to Obama this time around.

Johnson has a genius for looking as bland as vanilla.

So when it came time for Obama to pick a guy to vet his veeps, Johnson was a natural, or so Obama and his top advisers, David Axelrod and Washington lawyer Greg Craig, must have thought. And who would care anyway?

Well, that was wrong on almost too many levels to count. If they had thought about it for more than a minute, they would have realized that Johnson is the very embodiment of the world they had been running against: a fabulously wealthy man who had gotten that way by manipulating the tangled strings of money and power in the capital, and whose chief calling card to many who admire him is not his mind but his access to other people's bundled cash.

I am told by Democratic sources that within minutes of Hillary Clinton's speech "suspending" her candidacy, Johnson was working the phones, calling her most loyal supporters asking—all but demanding—that they attend fund-raisers and start Bundling for Obama. (He couldn't have been that busy on veep vetting.)

Johnson made hundreds of millions, perfectly legally, as the leader of Fannie Mae, the mortgage-bundling semigovernmental agency that helps homeowners of modest means. Under Johnson, Fannie Mae greatly expanded its role and helped drive home-ownership numbers to record levels, but it also became a gilt-edged ghetto for patronage appointees who used their contacts and chits to insulate the companies (and Johnson) from political attack.

He parlayed his Fannie Mae work into investments and corporate-board ties in New York and elsewhere. No one knows how much he is worth, but it is said to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. No one begrudges him his success. Johnson is widely liked. But only in Washington would he be seen as a character who did not clash horribly with Obama's message.

And he wasn't all that good a veep vetter, either. It was Johnson who oversaw the "vetting" of Geraldine Ferraro as Mondale's running mate in 1984. It was a historic choice—the first female on a major ticket. But no sooner had she been chosen than the press and the Reagan machine descended on her husband, raising questions about his business dealings that the Mondale campaign evidently had never considered.

When reporters raised questions about some of Johnson's personal mortgage dealings, Obama's first instinct was to tartly brush off the questions. I don't vet my vetters, he said. But as the media vultures circled—and as others pointed out the glaring mismatch between his basic message and the man he had chosen—Obama changed his mind.

And Johnson was out. He can still Bundle for Obama, and the betting here is that he will.