Ever since the election, the media has tried to convince us that Barack Obama’s transition effort was unparalleled in history. They heaped praise on him for having picked his Cabinet before his inauguration, as if that had never happened before, and for setting a clear path for their confirmations, as though a Democratic Senate would create much of a hurdle. Since the inauguration, though, a series of errors ranging from technological (e-mail and phone systems) to key personnel have grabbed headlines and shown Barack Obama as a bumbler in his honeymoon period.
Will the media quit fawning over Obama now? At least they’re starting to notice:
President Obama acknowledged yesterday that he had “made a mistake” in trying to exempt some candidates for positions in his administration from strict ethics standards and accepted the withdrawal of two top nominees, including former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle, in the first major setback of his young presidency.
Obama officials had sought a seamless transition, nominating most of his Cabinet at record pace and taking office ready to implement a raft of new policies. His reversal yesterday suggested that speed may have come at a cost, and that Obama, despite the overwhelming popularity he had upon taking office and the major challenges facing the nation, will not be spared from the same kind of scrutiny his predecessors have faced.
In jettisoning one of his closest and earliest political allies, the president appeared eager to make a course correction after days of criticism that his administration was not abiding by its own stated ethical standards and questions about his ability to bring change to the capital.
“Did I screw up in this situation? Absolutely. I’m willing to take my lumps,” Obama told NBC’s Brian Williams, one of five interviews he gave yesterday afternoon. Obama told the network anchors that there are “not two sets of rules” for people, and said that average taxpayers deserve to have public officials who pay their taxes on time.
Daschle’s exit from consideration to lead the Department of Health and Human Services after a firestorm over his failure to pay $146,000 in taxes on time came as a shock to the president’s supporters in Washington. Just a day earlier, Obama had pledged his full support for the former Democratic Senate leader who was widely expected to be confirmed. And just hours before Daschle bowed out, Nancy Killefer, Obama’s nominee for the newly created position of chief performance officer, also stepped aside because of a tax problem.
A few in the blogosphere seemed strangely cheered that Obama admitted he made a mistake, but Obama didn’t have much choice. In two weeks, he nominated two people to Cabinet positions who turned out to be major tax evaders, and a third tax evader who was supposed to measure performance in the federal government. Most transitions feel embarrassed by one high-profile withdrawal, but Obama’s had three: Daschle, Killefer, and Bill Richardson, who had to leave before being confirmed because of his involvement in a pay-for-play scandal in New Mexico.
Clearly, the Obama transition team doesn’t do its homework. The tax problems of all three, including Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, should have been caught months ago, especially for a transition team and effort as highly praised as this one. The investigation into Bill Richardson came to light last August. Didn’t anyone bother to even Google these candidates? Worse, even after the tax problems came to light, Obama acted as if it meant nothing until it became obvious that he was the only person in the country who didn’t understand how it looked to put tax cheats in charge of major federal bureaucracies.
And how do we know that the rest of Obama’s appointments are clean? After all, Obama promised a new era of government free of conflicts of interest, and then in two weeks appointed at least 13 lobbyists to key positions within his administration, including Daschle, who avoided registering as one. After months of demonizing lobbyists, Obama has quickly found ways to jump into bed with them, compounding the optics of cheerleading for tax cheats.
Now Obama looks weak and inexperienced, flailing at his first executive position in government — just as many of us predicted he would do during the campaign. The media never bothered to ask the tough questions about his lack of experience and instead extolled his coolness and his competence. Maybe now they’ll at least drop the Greatest Transition Ever meme and start reporting on what a train wreck it became.
Update: Rick Moran agrees — this isn’t fatal to the Obama presidency (yet), but it’s a train wreck of a transition.