Wednesday, February 4, 2009
The importance of being sinless
To lose a cabinet appointee may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness AP WHEN his transition began, Barack Obama was praised both for the smoothness of his moves and the high-powered people he had brought to unglamorous jobs. No longer. On Tuesday February 3rd Tom Daschle became the second would-be member of Mr Obama’s cabinet to step down over past sins. On the same day Nancy Killefer, who had been nominated as a “performance tsar” charged with scouring government programmes for waste, stepped aside too. Yet a third mini-scandal, over unpaid taxes, did not stop Timothy Geithner from being confirmed as treasury secretary last week. As a senator Mr Obama championed ethics legislation, and as a candidate he promised a clean White House. One of his first acts was to sign an executive order forbidding people from leaving the administration to join the private sector and turn around to lobby their former colleagues. Good-government types cheered, although Mr Obama has since appointed a former lobbyist from Raytheon, William Lynn, to a post in the Pentagon. Even before his inauguration Mr Obama saw a first candidate fall because of scandal. Bill Richardson, a former presidential contender himself, was nominated for commerce secretary. But the governor of New Mexico was named in an influence-peddling investigation. He maintained his innocence but bowed out to avoid embarrassing Mr Obama. This week Mr Obama nominated Judd Gregg, a Republican senator from New Hampshire, to become commerce secretary instead. The choice of a moderate Republican was hailed as another canny, bipartisan move. But the same week has brought the withdrawal of Mr Daschle and Ms Killefer. Mr Daschle, a former Democratic leader in the Senate, was to be secretary of health and human services and the leader of Mr Obama’s efforts to pass a big reform of health care. However it emerged that he had taken the services of a round-the-clock driver and a limousine, an expensive perk for which he never paid taxes, after leaving the Senate in 2005. He also failed to report over $80,000 in consulting income on which he also owed taxes. On Monday Mr Obama “absolutely” continued to back Mr Daschle. On Tuesday morning many still thought he would be confirmed until a joint statement from the president and Mr Daschle announced that he would step down. Later in the day Mr Obama admitted that he had “screwed up” in his handling of the affair. Mr Obama’s frankness is welcome. But the scandal is an embarrassment in part because Mr Daschle is a former “man of the people” campaigner, who had made so much since leaving office that he could mislay six figures in taxes. A similar irony beset the stepping aside of Ms Killefer. A former partner at McKinsey, a big consultancy, she was to be given the task of going through the budget line-by-line, scouring for waste. In the end she stumbled over another tax peccadillo that has haunted many politicians: failure to pay taxes for a nanny and a chauffeur. Saying she did not want to be a distraction, she too stepped aside on Tuesday. Mr Obama has let one former tax-avoider through: Tim Geithner, the new treasury secretary, who failed to pay self-employment taxes when he was a consultant for the International Monetary Fund. (Foes of America’s absurdly complicated tax code were delighted to note that even a reputedly brilliant economic mind failed to comply with it.) But with the financial and economic crisis raging, Mr Geithner appeared simply too important to lose. He was confirmed last week. Republicans, who were tainted by corruption before their loss of Congress in 2006, are enjoying the Democratic stumbles. Mr Obama will claim that the departures of Messrs Daschle and Richardson and Ms Killefer prove that he really is holding his government to a higher standard. And although Mr Obama, two weeks into his presidency, retains a clean image and high approval ratings some doubts are being raised over the competence of those who screened candidates for the top jobs. Mr Obama’s challenges are enormous, not least in pushing through reform of health care. As the shine comes off his halo the real work of governing will grow harder.