The abrupt departure of two of President Obama’s top nominees in a single day left Washington stunned by the series of ethical lapses affecting several Obama appointees.
Until Tuesday, Obama’s nominees had ridden a wave of positive media coverage to win confirmation despite admissions of serious tax problems and apparent conflicts of interest.
That wave finally crashed when the New York Times called for Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle to withdrawal – just one day after Obama insisted he “absolutely” stood by the nomination.
“It would send a terrible message to the public if we ignore the failure of yet another high-level nominee to comply with the tax laws,” Times editors wrote.
Later Tuesday morning, South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint called for Obama to dump Daschle because his failure to pay taxes indicated a "problem with integrity."
Within hours, Daschle bowed out, sending the administration scrambling for another nominee to champion Obama’s universal health agenda.
Adding to the chaos Tuesday was the unexpected withdrawal of Nancy Killefer, whom Obama lauded Jan. 7 as “uniquely qualified” to serve as the country’s first “chief performance officer.” She was expected to become deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Obama had described Killefer as “an expert in streamlining processes and wringing out inefficiencies so that taxpayers and consumers get more for their money.”
Unfortunately, Killefer had streamlined her own personal budget by not paying employment taxes for her household help. The District of Columbia slapped a tax lean on Killefer’s tony, $1.7 million home in Northwest Washington in 2005 for failure to pay the taxes.
Killefer wrote Obama Tuesday that the oversight could “create exactly the kind of distraction and delay those duties must avoid.” She withdrew.
Obama, who harped throughout the campaign on the need to clean up government and restore the public’s trust, suddenly found his aura of assumed ethical advantage in tatters. And the media environment turned less forgiving.
"Mr. President,” CNN host Campbell Brown wrote in her column, “your picks to help run the federal government don't have to be perfect. But is it too much to ask that they pay like everyone else, to keep that same government functioning? And more importantly, that they don't wait until everyone, including you, is watching?"
One of Obama’s first official acts as president was signing a tough executive order cracking down on lobbying by former government officials, part of the pledge he made in his inaugural address to usher in a “new age of responsibility.” Yet that didn’t preclude him from welcoming a number of lobbyists to his administration.
In fact, one of the snags that tripped up Daschle in addition to his more than $130,000 in unpaid federal taxes was the policy advice he bestowed on UnitedHealth Group and the Mayo Clinic, while not being registered as a lobbyist.
Other appointment problems dogging the early days of the Obama administration:Despite Obama’s “no lobbyists” pledge, he selected Raytheon executive and lobbyist William Lynn to serve as the No. 2 official in the Pentagon. Raytheon is a major Pentagon contractor.Newly minted U.S. Attorney Gen. William Holder -- who told his Senate inquisitors he is quite sure he knows torture when he sees it -- apparently isn’t so clear on what constitutes terrorism. As a member of former President Bill Clinton’s administration, Holder helped FALN bombers win an early release from prison. He also supported Clinton’s controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose wife was a major donor to the Clinton library.Timothy Geithner, the former president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank that failed to head off the Wall Street meltdown, won confirmation as President Barack Obama's treasury secretary, making him the new No. 1 official responsible for collecting the nation’s taxes. This came despite the news that Geithner failed to pay all of the $42,702 he owed in unpaid taxes until after Obama nominated him.Hillary Clinton won confirmation as secretary of state only after promising complete transparency regarding foreign contributions made to her husband’s foundation. The Clinton Foundation has received millions of dollars from overseas donors – donors who have a vested interest in influencing U.S. foreign policy. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew as Obama’s first choice to serve as Commerce secretary, saying a federal investigation into “pay-to-play” allegations involving him could be a distraction to the incoming administration. Three key Obama advisers – Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Senior Adviser David Axelrod, and Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, were caught up in the whirlwind of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s arrest. Although the investigation was awkwardly handled by Obama’s team, no allegations of wrongdoing against them emerged.One of Obama’s most controversial nominations, CIA director appointee Leon Panetta, awaits confirmation. The former Clinton administration chief staff has been roundly criticized for lacking intelligence experience. At one point the chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., remarked: "The agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time." Feinstein later backtracked and said she would support the nomination.
Presidential transition and policy expert James P. Pfiffner, author of The Modern Presidency, tells Newsmax that Obama’s nomination mishaps have been somewhat greater than normal for an incoming president, particularly regarding tax issues.
The errors suggest flaws in the Obama team’s vetting process, he says, and adds that the stumbles are worrisome given the high expectations for good governance created by Obama himself.
Pfiffner, a public policy professor at George Mason University, says he finds Obama’s missteps all the more surprising given what he viewed as an extraordinarily effective presidential transition.
“It seems to me Obama painted with too broad a brush in banning lobbyists, because there are varying degrees of lobbyists, and he did raise the bar and expectations,” Pfiffner tells Newsmax. “Therefore they should have been more careful vetting the people he was appointing, knowing that he had made that such an important principle of his administration.”
That view contrasts sharply with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs’ perspective. He defended the Obama administration's screening of Cabinet choices.
"The totality of our picks, it's impressive, and I think our vettors have done a good job," Gibbs told the media.
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