You never get a second chance to make a first post-inaugural impression. Less than three weeks into his first 100 days, Barack Obama has left an indelible mark on his nascent presidency: the mark of incompetence and hubris. Despite the administration's much-touted wealth of bright minds and high bars, the transition has been a complete disaster.
In a double whammy on Tuesday, tax troubles and ethical clouds forced the withdrawal of not one but two high-profile Obama nominees. These come on the heels of former Commerce Secretary-nominee Bill Richardson's withdrawal due to a pay-for-play probe in New Mexico and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's "tax goofs" involving his failure to pay $43,000 in federal self-employment taxes for four separate years -- until, that is, he was nominated for the Treasury post. Thorough vetting, it seems, is an inconvenient process -- a pesky "distraction," if you will -- in the Land of Hope and Change.
Health and Human Services Secretary-designee Tom Daschle finally bowed out after aggressive rehabilitative efforts failed. His chummy Senate pals on both sides of the aisle may have been willing to forgive his failure to pay longstanding back taxes owed on limo services, undisclosed consulting fees and dubious charitable donations worth an estimated $146,000, including interest and penalties. But the American people were not. (And an interesting postscript: He may have apologized and dropped out of the administration, but Daschle still owes Medicare taxes equal to 2.9 percent of the personal value of the car service he received from Democratic donor and crony Leo Hindery Jr.)
Just before the Daschle announcement came the withdrawal of Nancy Killefer. She was tapped to be President Obama's "Chief Performance Officer," overseeing compliance, organizational effectiveness and waste management across every federal agency. But the former Clinton Treasury official and head of the prestigious Washington office of the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, Inc., couldn't be bothered to manage her own household help effectively. She failed for a year and a half to pay employment taxes and had an outstanding tax lien on her home. The lien was worth less than $1,000 -- far less than the tax liability Geithner owed.
If I were a left-wing feminist, I'd be sorely tempted to whip out the gender card and give the Good Old Boys Club a few whacks. Killefer gets thrown under the bus, but Geithner gets to drive? No justice, no peace!
Now, compare President Bush's transition track record in 2001. Remember that the traditional 100-day period was shortened as a result of the election lawsuit. Wrote Paul Light of the left-leaning Brookings Institution at the time: "Bush gets an A on the transition into office. He survived his truncated 40-day transition with only one major mistake -- Linda Chavez, who withdrew her nomination for Labor Secretary after the flap over allowing an illegal immigrant to stay in her house. … Bush also deserves an A-plus for the timely assembly of his White House team. Building around Vice President Dick Cheney, the Bush White House is an MBA's dream: efficient, predictable, well controlled, on time, under budget."
During Tuesday's press briefing, glib White House spokesman Robert Gibbs did his best to bat down a rising chorus of questions about his boss's judgment -- not only on the nomination "glitches," but also on an ever-growing list of exemptions to Obama's no-lobbyists pledge. Echoing Bill Clinton's "most ethical administration ever" and Nancy Pelosi's "most ethical House ever" mantras, Gibbs defensively asserted: "The bar that we set is the highest that any administration in the country has ever set."
Then how, pray tell, did all the president's tax cheats make it past the front door? And where is Vice President Joe Biden to wag his finger at their lack of patriotism? Team Obama embraced these damaged candidates despite advanced knowledge of their lapses. Killefer's tax lien was four years old. Questions about Daschle's judgment have lingered for years. Ask GOP Sen. John Thune, who defeated Daschle the Dodger in 2004 after news broke of his bogus property-tax homestead exemption claim on his $1.9 million D.C. mansion -- which he listed as his primary residence despite voting in South Dakota and claiming it as his primary residence in order to run for re-election.
The buck stops at the desk of Barack Obama. A little of that humility and personal responsibility he spoke so much about during his inaugural address is now in order.
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