The Lessons of Daschle: Can Obama Reboot?

Discussion in 'Politics' started by toomuchtime_, Feb 5, 2009.

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    In his book The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama offered a paean to the glories of flying on private jets. He lovingly described his first trip on a Citation X: "The plane took off, its Rolls-Royce engines gripping the air the way a well-made sports car grips the road ... I could see how people might get used to this." The punch line of the story was that Obama's staff asked him to give up the practice, which was legal, because he was the Democrats' Senate point man on ethics reform. "It was the right thing to do, but I won't lie," he admitted. "The first time I was scheduled for a four-city swing ... flying commercial, I felt some pangs of regret." The traffic was awful. His plane to Memphis was late. But then he found himself in an intense conversation about stem-cell research with a man suffering from Parkinson's. "These are the stories you miss, I thought to myself, when you fly on a private jet," he concluded.

    And that is why Tom Daschle had to go. If he hadn't jumped, Obama would have had to push him, even though Daschle was a mentor and close friend. It wasn't just the unpaid taxes. And it wasn't just that two other Obama Administration officials had neglected to pay their taxes as well. It was the lifestyle, and the choices Daschle made. It was that he had given speeches worth $200,000 to health-care-industry groups that he would have had to regulate as Health and Human Services Secretary. It was that he made $5 million in two years, "advising" various businesses and organizations rather than formally "lobbying" for them, a cheesy distinction that almost made it worse. It was that these decisions became known at a moment of rising public disgust with the bankers who looted the economy — and then continued to loot it, granting themselves bonuses even after the rest of us chose to bail them out.

    When I began writing about Washington more than 30 years ago, it was a fairly modest town. There were lobbyists; there always had been — just read Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner's hilarious novel The Gilded Age. But in the 1980s, I began to notice that the lobbies of the buildings where the lobbyists lived had gone all marble and melodramatic. A new class of steak houses hit town: now you can buy a Kobe beefsteak for $175 in some joints. The limos multiplied; McMansions sprouted in the near suburbs. In a way, Daschle — a very decent man, by the way — and his lobbyist wife are the poster children for that lifestyle.

    The excesses of wealth, throughout the country, have become an American problem. The extremely rich have detached themselves from the rest of society, which was the point of Obama's story about private jets. In Washington, it is a bipartisan phenomenon. Democrats have their special interests too, and their lobbyists are terrific at what they do. A guy like Daschle, who knows the system cold, who could talk to both the insurance companies and the liberal advocates, would have been invaluable to Obama in bringing health insurance to everyone who needs it. But, as the man said, we're all going to have to sacrifice, and it now seems clear that Obama's sacrifice, if he wants to reattach Washington to a nation sick with cynicism about its government, will be to detach himself from the lobbyist élites who might have helped grease the skids for his policy goals.

    It is easy to overstate the problem. Daschle will be a footnote in the history of the Obama Administration, certainly when compared with monumental projects like the stimulus package and the bank bailout. But it might be time for Obama to take a breath, to rethink, if not reboot. The more I think about the stimulus supertanker, the more questionable it seems. Not substantively: most of the money in it is justifiable. But a case can be made that it should have been divided into discrete packages: a short-term booster with tax cuts, state aid and shovel-ready public works; then, an education bill, a health-care bill, a green- and high-tech-economy bill. In almost all these areas, there are reforms that need to be attached to the money. The additional money for Medicaid should be part of a comprehensive health- insurance plan that creates a universal system of managed care for all Americans. The additional money for inner-city schools needs to be attached to education reform — longer school days and years, merit pay, the abolition of teacher tenure. And so forth. The money for those programs will be spent slowly, so it doesn't have to be authorized next week.

    These are certainly tough battles — against Democratic interest groups, in some cases — and tougher still when they are considered slowly, deliberately, rather than rushed through. But Obama promised a new day, a more efficient government. If he is wise, he can still deliver it.


    The Lessons of Daschle: Can Obama Reboot? - TIME
     

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