Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Obama Needs to be "Wise as Serpents, and Harmless as Doves"

Yesterday we saw Tom Daschle, President Obama's nominee for Health and Human Services, step aside because he hadn't paid his taxes (something like $120,000 in taxes), and we saw Nancy Killefer, his nominee for Chief Performance Officer (a bureaucrat's bureaucrat of a position, if ever I heard of one), pull out for a similar reason.

Unbelievably, Timothy Geithner, his nominee for Treasury, who had earlier been excused for his failure to pay taxes and had been confirmed and sworn in, still retains his seat.

Today, we were simultaneously amused and relieved, actually, to see the president reach across the aisle and nominate a Republican, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, for Secretary of Commerce. Maybe he ran out of law-abiding Democrats.

It's a wise move for Obama, who has been chagrined and embarrassed by the fiscal irresponsibility of Geithner, Killefer and Daschle. Had he persisted in fighting for their nominations, he would have been rightfully accused of a promoting a double standard in this country, a double standard by which "only the little people pay taxes," to quote queen witch Leona Helmsley. The blatant hypocrisy in the executive branch would have seriously undermined his presidency, as the people would have revolted, a mere 15 days into his presidential term.

So, you may ask, why is Obama having so much trouble seating a scrupulous Cabinet? Are there not that many honorable Democrats to be found? (I can hear a chorus of people shouting, "NO!" and a bunch more murmuring, "Well, maybe not.")

Obama is getting a rude awakening here.

Let's start from the assumption that President Obama is an honorable guy, that his ethics and morals are beyond question. (I know some of you will disagree. Stick with me here. Don't let "guilt by association" get in the way.)

The last Democratic president we had with impeccable ethics and morals was Jimmy Carter. Carter's presidency was embarrassing and ineffective, but not because he was a "bad" man. In fact, Carter really was a "good" man. Carter's presidency failed because he believed that the rest of the executive branch, and Congress, and in fact the leaders of nations, were as "good" as he was. His cabinet members abused his trust in them, Congress laughed at his trust in them, and the leaders of nations took advantage of his trust in them, all to further their own goals and gain the advantage over everyone else -- including President Carter.

The next Democratic president after Carter was Bill Clinton. Let's throw Hillary in there as well, since she alternates between banking on her association with Bill and distancing herself from him, and I'm not about to let her have it both ways. The Clinton presidency was cynical and self-serving, at times vindictive and underhanded, but overridingly self-serving. The Clintons got a lot of things done in their term because they only cared about themselves and their success. Nobody and nothing else mattered, not even ethics, morals, or the law.

Well, that's not entirely true. Ethics, morals and the law mattered only insofar as they served the Clintons' interests and advanced their goals. The president's idea of ethics was that anything was okay, so long as it got him what he wanted and didn't impede his progress. (He really messed up on that one, but that's a story for another time.) The First Lady's idea of ethics, in her own words, was to do "whatever it takes" to accomplish her goals.

In sharp contrast to Carter, the Clintons were "bad" people -- ethically, morally, and legally -- and they believed that everyone else in the world was as "bad" as they were. They were always looking out for Number One, and never trusted anybody. The First Lady, in particular, wielded power far beyond her legal authority, and kept everyone in her power on a very short leash. That included the president, but he kept slipping his leash, and ended up bringing dishonor upon the Office of the President and upon his own name.

So, on the one hand, we have "good" President Carter, who failed because he naively believed everyone else to be "good" like him, and we have "bad" President Clinton, who succeeded at first, but ultimately failed, because he cynically believed everyone else to be "bad" like him. Assuming that Obama is a "good" and honorable man, he will need to avoid the mistakes of Jimmy Carter, and instead, like the Clintons, suspect that nobody else in his administration, in Congress or in the leadership of nations is "good" and can be trusted -- until they prove otherwise. Trust that is earned is less likely to be thrown away.

1 comment:

Zyzmog said...

This week, Mr. Gregg withdrew his nomination for Secretary of Commerce. He said that he really wanted to do it, but realized that he would always be in disagreement with the president's policies, or something like that. He was a man of integrity. That leaves Obama with a handful of tax cheats and powermongers in his Cabinet. This is the non-elected government we got stuck with. For now.