And so the learning process begins. The cumulative fallout from the Richardson/Daschle/Killefer nomination withdrawals is working its way through the punditocracy, with predictable media headlines. The theme du jour seems to be that Obama pushed too many nominees too fast in disregard of his own commitment to bring new transparency and higher ethical standards to Washington. He has been hoisted on his own petard of promising to bring change to Washington – a promise he undercut by nominating experienced Washington hands to key cabinet positions. The failed nominations have led some pundits – academics included – to proclaim that the veneer is already fading from the shiny new Obama Presidency. According to Anne Kornblut and Michael Shear at the Washington Post: “Daschle’s withdrawal serves as a rebuke to Obama officials who had brushed aside tax issue concerns” (story here). Even academics are piling on: “At first, I thought this was a vetting problem, but now I think it’s hubris – that they somehow think they’re so powerful and so popular that the normal rules don’t apply,” said Paul Light, an expert on presidential transitions and a professor at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.
Let’s be clear here: this reaction is nonsense. As I reminded a USAToday reporter (see story here), almost every president in the post-Watergate era has seen at least one cabinet-level nominee fail the confirmation process. Here’s a quick overview:
|President Official/Cabinet Position Charge Disposition|
|Carter Bert Lance – OMB Director Bad loans Confirmed but Resigned|
|Carter Ted Sorensen – CIA Policy Bias Withdrew|
|Bush I John Tower – Defense drinking/womanizing Voted Down|
|Clinton Zoe Baird – Attorney General nanny/taxes Withdrew|
|Clinton Kimba Wood – Attorney General nanny Withdrew|
|Bush II Linda Chavez – Labor Immigration Withdrew|
Why would Obama be any different? To believe all his nominees would go through unscathed is to suggest that his election has somehow rescinded the laws of normal politics. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, I see no evidence that this is the case; the presidency under Obama still operates under the familiar institutional and political constraints affecting all modern presidents. Do the failed nominations suggest a certain amount of hubris on the part of Obama and his senior staff? Sure. Did he help hoist himself on his own petard by entering office proclaiming that his administration would adhere to a higher code of ethics? Undoubtedly. But we need to keep this in perspective. All presidents enter office claiming that they will kick out the moneychangers occupying the political temple and operate under a more stringent code of ethical conduct. .And they all do so motivated in part by a combination of arrogance, naïveté and hopefulness. Who can blame them? In most cases they took office having defied the conventional wisdom by winning election to the highest position in the land. It’s hard not to believe your own press clippings.
Obama is no different than previous presidents in this regard. But we need to understand that despite his claim to be an agent of change, the political fundamentals are still in play here. Obama’s arrogance didn’t cause the nomination failures – the post-Watergate era-constructed nomination process did. Simply put, it is almost impossible for any public figure active in national politics to emerge unscathed during the confirmation process today. Tighter financial disclosure and conflict of interest laws, a more transparent nomination process and the combined scrutiny of the mainstream media and the blogosphere, all against the backdrop of an increasingly polarized Congress and an active interest group universe, means that it is unrealistic to expect all of Obama’s nominees to win confirmation from the Senate. It is the nature of the appointment process today that the president is going to lose a major cabinet nominee.
The real story here, I argue, is how well Obama responded to this incident. Clearly he has learned from the Jeremiah Wright debacle (another reminder that he benefitted from the closely contested nomination race). When scandal arises, confront it, admit your mistake, and cut your losses. He’s done that very well in the last 24 hours. To me, the mark of an effective president is not that he doesn’t make mistakes – all of them do. It is how quickly they learn from them. On that score, Obama has, so far, demonstrated sound political judgment.
A final thought: the real impact of Daschle’s departure will be felt down the road, if and when Obama embarks on health care reform. Daschle was uniquely suited to shepherding reform legislation through Congress, and his presence will be missed. Even here, however, Obama has a chance to capitalize on Daschle’s departure. As I’ll explain in a later post, the decision to make Daschle both the head of Health and Human Services and give him a White House position as “health czar” was a mistake, since it meant that Daschle would be the sole conduit of information on health reform to the President. Obama can’t afford to have the centerpiece of his domestic legislation controlled by a single individual. As we learned from the Clinton presidency, when it comes to health care specifically (and I would argue policy in general), no president should allow himself to rely on a single policy adviser. Instead, competition among staff and cabinet members is the key to producing better policy. Let’s hope that when he nominates Daschle’s successor that individual is NOT given a White House position as well.
The larger point of the day: it is foolhardy to think Obama’s election somehow signifies the suspension of normal politics – that his presidency will operate under a different dynamic in which the traditional constraints on presidential leadership will be lifted. All the evidence so far suggests precisely the opposite. The sooner Obama – and we – learn this, the better off we all will be.