Presidential scholars see recent White House job offers as nothing new

The White House job offers that led to charges the administration is practicing Chicago-style politics are nothing out of the ordinary when it comes to Washington, according to presidential scholars.

Offering someone a position to get him out of the way goes back at least as far as the 1824 presidential election of John Quincy Adams.  

“This kind of jockeying happens all the time in politics,” said David Greenberg, a professor of history, journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. “Politicians are always trying to get people in and out of races, and they will use offers, inducements and even threats to do that.”

Obama’s White House is under fire for discussions that included talks of posts within the administration with Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) and former Colorado state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D). In both cases, the White House — acting through former President Bill Clinton in the case of Sestak — sought to clear Democratic Senate primaries for its favored incumbents, and has said no formal positions were offered.  

Adams allegedly offered Speaker Henry Clay a job as secretary of state to get him to drop his bid for the presidency.  

Clay, Adams and two other candidates split the electoral vote in the 1824 presidential election. With the decision moving to the House, Clay threw his support to Adams. That was enough to hand the House vote and presidency to Adams over Andrew Jackson, who led all candidates in electoral votes and won 10 percent more of the popular vote than Adams.  

In what was a scandal at the time, Clay ended up accepting the secretary of state position, though he insisted Jackson’s politics were the reason he threw his support to Adams.

More recently, rumors circulated that President Ronald Reagan offered an ambassadorship or other job to GOP Sen. S.I. Hayakawa if he dropped out of a 1982 Senate California primary.  

Hayakawa told the Associated Press at the time: “I do not want to be ambassador and I do not want an administration post.” Hayakawa eventually decided against reelection, and Republican Pete Wilson won the race.  

GOP strategist Ed Rollins, who worked for the Reagan White House, told ABC News that no job offer was actually made to Hayakawa. According to ABC, Rollins said he told an AP reporter at the time that if Hayakawa decided on his own to drop out of the race, he was sure the administration would be willing to offer him a post.  

But Rollins said a job had never been discussed and the White House was not encouraging the talk.  

Presidential scholars say the problem for Obama is that Sestak and Romanoff discussed their talks.  

“The Obama administration has been caught red-handed: practicing politics,” said Norman Ornstein, political scientist and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.  

In the Romanoff and Sestak cases, there is no evidence of quid pro quo, which could cross the law.  

Federal law makes it illegal to promise “employment, position, compensation, contract, appointment or other benefit … to any person as consideration, favor or reward for any political activity or for the support of or opposition to any candidate.”  

The question for the Obama administration is whether merely talking about possible jobs with candidates will politically hurt a president who promised to bring change and strong ethical practices to Washington.  

“It's always dangerous when you talk about your administration setting a higher ethical standard,” said Ornstein.

“Obama was going to be the president that changed the way Washington works, but this is how Washington has always worked,” said James Thurber, professor of government at American University.