Sunday, February 08, 2009

Depends what your definition of "screwed up" is

The country has been ga-ga over Obama declaring "I screwed up" in connection with the Daschle nomination. So refreshing, such a break with the prior administration. But what exactly did Obama mean?

Did he mean that Daschle was the wrong pick to head HHS and the effort to reform healthcare? No....

Tom, I think, is an outstanding individual. I am absolutely convinced that he would've been the best person to help shepherd through what's going to be a very difficult process to get health care for American families.
Did he mean that his vetting process was somehow wanting? No...

Well, I, you know, don't think there's something wrong with the vetting process.
Did he mean that Daschle's tax error, once revealed, should have disqualified him? Or that, once the error (and Daschle's quasi-lobbying activities) came to light, Obama should have asked him to resign immediately? Maybe, kinda:

I think that what happened, certainly, let's just take Tom as an example. I made a judgment that he was the best person possible for the job. I was very eager to make sure that we can deliver on a commitment that I have to deliver healthcare for the American people. I think I messed up. I screwed up in not recognizing the perception that even though this is an honest mistake, I believe, on Tom's part, that, you know, ordinary people are out there paying taxes every day and whether it's an intentional mistake or not, it was sending the wrong signal. So again, this was something that was my fault. I continue to consider Tom Daschle an outstanding public servant, uh, and what we're going to do now is make sure we get somebody confirmed and start moving forward.
I screwed up in not recognizing the perception. Was the perception wrong or right? Did Daschle violate an ethical standard to an extent that made him unfit for the office? If not, was the perception wrong? If wrong, should Obama have tried to change it?

I think Obama "screwed up" in setting the ethical bar too high. He's absolutely right that lobbyists' grip on U.S. politics needs to be weakened. But the focus should be on rules in effect going forward, not on selecting only people who are simon-pure by a new standard. And while it's true that "ordinary people are out there paying taxes," it's not true that "ordinary people" with any discretionary items routinely pay all taxes they could be construed to owe. How many of those condemning Daschle, or Killefer, or Geithner for their tax misdemeanors hold themselves to a higher standard? Ask their accountants, if they're reasonably affluent, or the people who paint their houses, if they're middle class, or the people whom they serve privately, in unsalaried positions, if they're poor.

Yes, public officials should be held to a higher standard. But perhaps we've arrived at the point, to paraphrase AIG's Hank Greenberg, where footfaults are treated as a murder charge.

Frank Rich is probably right that populist rage at the excesses of Wall Street and Washington are going to be a formidable political force in the years ahead, and that Obama needs to "get in front of the mounting public anger." But Obama also demonstrated a rare ability through the endless campaign to explain nuance, and to articulate two sides of a matter in dispute. Sometimes he may need to stand between his subordinates and the public rage.

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