Saturday, February 7, 2009

Difficult week serves up important lesson for Obama

(Originally published 2/7/09)

Last week I told you that idealists scored a victory with the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

I also mentioned how idealism often struggles in the ugly muck of Washington.

President Obama got a sobering lesson this week on the latter.

Remember just after the election when Obama's transition team made waves with a detailed, 63-item questionnaire required of all potential appointees and job applicants? Nine questions –- a whole section –- dealt specifically with taxes; four concerned domestic help. And just in case they missed anything, the final question of the application was a catch-all: "Please provide any information, including information about other members of your family, that could ... be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the President-Elect," it read.

A lot of good that did.

As of this writing, five of Obama's nominees have had confirmation problems. Four of the five (or their spouses) admitted to not paying taxes, including the man who now heads the Treasury Department and is charged with ensuring that you pay your taxes; three of the five dropped out; and confirmation hearings for one are on hold pending "further investigation" of allegations involving her spouse.

What did this mean about the vetting process? White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs scrambled to assure the public that none of these revelations came as any surprise to the president. And given the scope of the questionnaire, I'm inclined to believe him.

But if Obama was aware of his prospective nominees' various tax issues and chose to nominate them anyway, then that leaves only one explanation: He didn't think the tax issues were serious enough to scuttle their confirmation bids.

This is what led the president of the United States to face cable news anchors on Tuesday and say repeatedly, "I screwed up."

I watched several of those interviews, and every one left me with the same feeling: How positively curious to see someone of such power admit an error so plainly.

So it was against this backdrop that the Senate received the stimulus package from the House with something less than exuberance.

In the House, the president had tried gentle prodding. He'd courted Republicans. He’d leaned on House leadership to drop provisions targeted by the GOP.

As the bill went on life support in the Senate, Obama ratcheted up the rhetoric and even sounded an alarum bell or two, using words like "catastrophe" to describe what awaits the economy if the bill fails.

Yawn, they replied.

At some point, Obama remembered the definition of "bully pulpit." His speech Thursday was sharp and unapologetic, spiked with urgency and peppered with sarcasm.

There were even hand gestures.

"Tensions running high, patience wearing thin," observed CNN's Anderson Cooper.

By the time you read this, the fate of the stimulus package will likely be sealed. Whatever happens, Obama will keep plugging away on the economy, most notably with a rollout of a revamped TARP program Monday.

And he will do so having learned an important lesson over this difficult week: He'll face plenty of political slings and arrows as president without inflicting them on himself.

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