How quickly they fall. Tom Daschle, who just yesterday had the full backing of President Barack Obama, has announced he is withdrawing his name from consideration as Health and Human Services secretary. For both Daschle and Obama, it has been a rough ride, calling into question the latter’s judgment and skill as a chief executive.
President Barack Obama rode into Washington on a veritable cloud of goodwill and sky-high expectations. The mainstream media had swooned over his transition with some justification. They had swooned over his inaugural speech with far less. But hopes, even among conservatives, were high for a break from business as usual, a degree of bipartisan pragmatism and a can-do approach to solving the nation’s economic problems. But in a mere two weeks, the thrill is gone and nagging questions have begun.
Most glaringly, we have been treated to a raft of embarrassing personnel issues. Tim Geithner made it through the confirmation hearing but Bill Richardson did not; nor did the “chief performance officer” who could not perform the task of paying all her own taxes. Then Tom Daschle, who just yesterday garnered the support of President Obama and Democrats in the Senate, has now announced he is backing out. This followed a storm of criticism from not just conservatives who are aghast at the tax cheats and revolving-door-ism. Marie Cocco summed up:
No need to fumble for words that sum up the stew of hypocrisy, arrogance, and insiderism that is the unfolding saga of Tom Daschle. This is the audacity of audacity. … The rationale for confirming Geithner was that he is a financial wizard — one of a handful of people, it was argued, with the experience and intellect necessary to manage the worst banking crisis since the Great Depression. But surely there is more than one Democrat capable of managing the Department of Health and Human Services. And undoubtedly there is more than one — there are perhaps, hundreds — as committed to the cause of revamping the health care system. Daschle isn’t indispensable. But he is indefensible.
And Richard Cohen was no less critical:
Taken individually, the tax problems of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and the health and human services secretary-designate, Tom Daschle, don’t amount to much. Together, though, they amount to a message: If you are beloved by this administration, you don’t necessarily have to play by the rules. Both Geithner and Daschle are good men, but their appointments send the message that Washington’s new broom sweeps a bit like the old one.
The Daschle debacle is not the only problem bedeviling the Obama team. This follows a slew of ethics waivers which has made the so-called ethics rules (prohibiting ex-lobbyists from working on issues for which they previously lobbied) into Swiss cheese. The good-government types are fuming. And even the MSM has noticed the pattern, which includes an ethics waiver for William Lynn, a former lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon who has been nominated for the Pentagon’s number two job.
TIME magazine explains:
But the controversy over the waivers, which have been criticized by both Democratic and Republican senators, is just one of the perception problems dogging Obama’s new ethics policy. Another issue stems from the people nominated to the administration who have worked in the lobbying business but are not technically lobbyists — people, in other words, like Tom Daschle, or former Senator George Mitchell, the new Middle East peace envoy who had previously served as the chairman of a law firm that has done lobbying and legal work for many clients in the region, including the leader of Dubai.
In short, we are back to the very same Washington, D.C., brew of sleaze, double standards, ethical lapses, and hypocrisy. That it comes from an administration which ran on such a sanctimonious platform only makes it that much more disappointing and indeed infuriating.
But that’s not all. Aside from the ethics issues, the number one priority, the Obama stimulus plan, has run aground. The administration’s stimulus bill has become the subject of widespread criticism from conservatives and mainstream outlets alike for its porked-up spending plans and insufficient attention to fulfill the president’s directives for a temporary and targeted response to the recession. What was supposed to garner bipartisan support has instead invigorated the Republican opposition. As ABC’s The Note summed up: “Team Obama lost the early battle to define the bill — which has become a pork-stuffed monstrosity, instead of economic salvation wrapped in legislation.”
On foreign policy the record is more mixed. The president’s declaration that he will close Guantanamo, as soon as he has figured out what to do with the prisoners, brought conservative criticism and has proven to be unpopular with voters who, come to think of it, don’t like the idea of moving dangerous terrorists to their neighborhoods or releasing them to the battlefield. And liberals are miffed that the Bush-era terrorist rendition program has been retained or indeed expanded. President Obama’s apologetic interview with Al-Arabyia was panned by conservatives and lauded by liberals (but, tellingly, was not echoed by his new secretary of state and was greeted with contempt by Ahmadinejad.)
It is fair to ask: what’s wrong? Several things, it appears, are at work here.
First, the Obama team certainly does not place ethical standards or the appearance of ethical standards above other concerns (e.g., avoiding embarrassment or getting a key player). Now this should come as no surprise from the team which promised to work within the public campaign financing rules and then decided it was better not to. In the course of the campaign, however, against the dreaded Republicans this passed muster. In the glare of the White House press corps lights when expectations are higher, it induces biting criticism and even anger.
Second, Obama has never been an expert legislator and has, it seems, lost control of his own stimulus bill. By deferring to the House Democrats he lost the policy and political high ground. Now an astounding 54% of Americans either want a major reworking of the bill or to block it entirely. The president and his advisors seem to have mistaken his own personal popularity with both the public’s and the Republicans’ willingness to accept anything he and the Democrats could dream up.
And finally, the Republicans have played their cards well on the stimulus — speaking in respectful tones about the president, displaying heretofore unheard of unity, and hammering at the excessive and unwise aspects of the stimulus bill. By holding their ground, they have forced Obama into a tight corner. He must now either revise the bill or pass it on his own. And by standing on principle, they have denied the president the chance to do what he has done successfully throughout his career; namely, to claim the mantle of bipartisanship while advocating a far-left agenda.
Now, President Obama’s approval numbers are still high, but they are floating steadily back to earth. This is the messy business of governing — when rhetoric comes up against reality and the sky-high expectations of supporters are ratcheted down, bit by bit.
It was never realistic to expect President Obama would reinvent politics, but it would have been nice had he not sacrificed his principles quite so quickly. It has not earned him any brownie points. Instead, conservatives are revived, liberals are dismayed, and the general public is left wondering: Didn’t we vote for something better than this?