During almost two years on the campaign trail, Barack Obama vowed to slay the demons of Washington, bar lobbyists from his administration and usher in what he would later call in his Inaugural Address a “new era of responsibility.” What he did not talk much about were the asterisks.
The exceptions that went unmentioned now include a pair of Cabinet nominees who did not pay all of their taxes. Then there is the lobbyist for a military contractor who is now slated to become the No. 2 official in the Pentagon. And there are the others brought into government from the influence industry even if not formally registered as lobbyists.
Obama said Monday that he was “absolutely” standing behind former Sen. Tom Daschle, his nominee for health and human services secretary, and Daschle, who met late in the day with leading senators in an effort to keep his confirmation on track, said he had “no excuse” and would “deeply apologize” for his failure to pay $128,000 in federal taxes.
But the episode has already shown how, when faced with the perennial clash between campaign rhetoric and Washington reality, Obama has proved willing to compromise.
Every four or eight years a new president arrives in town, declares his determination to cleanse a dirty process and invariably winds up trying to reconcile the clear ideals of electioneering with the muddy business of governing. Obama, on his first day in office, imposed perhaps the toughest ethics rules of any president in modern times, and since then he and his advisers have been trying to explain why they do not cover this case or that case.
“This is a big problem for Obama, especially because it was such a major, major promise,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government, a watchdog group. “He harped on it, time after time, and he created a sense of expectation around the country. This is exactly why people are skeptical of politicians, because change we can believe in is not the same thing as business as usual.”
And so in these opening days of the administration, the Obama team finds itself being criticized by bloggers on the left and the right, mocked by television comics and questioned by reporters about whether Obama is really changing the way Washington works or just changing which political party works it.
Some Republicans saw a double standard. “What would it be like if Hank Paulson had come in without paying his taxes, or any other member of the Cabinet?” asked Terry Nelson, a political strategist who worked for President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, referring to Bush’s Treasury secretary. “It would be roundly attacked and roundly criticized.”
Several Democrats, including some who have advised Obama, said privately that he had only himself to blame for laying out such an uncompromising standard as a candidate without recognizing how it would complicate his ability to assemble an administration.
In the campaign, Obama assailed the “entire culture in Washington” in which “our leaders have thrown open the doors of Congress and the White House to an army of Washington lobbyists who have turned our government into a game only they can afford to play.”