By FRANK RICH
SOMEDAY historians may look back at Tom Daschle’s flameout as a minor one-car (and chauffeur) accident. But that will depend on whether or not it’s followed by a multi-vehicle pileup that still could come. Even as President Obama refreshingly took responsibility for having “screwed up,” it’s not clear that he fully understands the huge forces that hit his young administration last week.
The tsunami of populist rage coursing through America is bigger than Daschle’s overdue tax bill, bigger than John Thain’s trash can, bigger than any bailed-out C.E.O.’s bonus. It’s even bigger than the Obama phenomenon itself. It could maim the president’s best-laid plans and what remains of our economy if he doesn’t get in front of the mounting public anger.
Like nearly everyone else in Washington, Obama was blindsided by the savagery and speed of Daschle’s demise. Conventional wisdom had him surviving the storm. Such is the city’s culture that not a single Republican or Democratic senator called for his withdrawal until the morning of his exit. Membership in the exclusive Senate club, after all, has its privileges. Among Daschle’s more vocal defenders was Bob Dole, who had recruited him to Alston & Bird, the law and lobbying firm where Dole has served as “special counsel” when not otherwise cashing in on his own Senate years by serving as a pitchman for Pepsi and Viagra.
In New York, editorial pages on both ends of the political spectrum, The Wall Street Journal and The Times, called for Daschle to step down. But not The Washington Post. In a frank expression of the capital’s isolation from the country, it thought Daschle could still soldier on even though “ordinary Americans who pay their taxes may well wonder why Mr. Obama can’t find cabinet secretaries who do the same.”
As Jon Stewart might say, oh those pesky ordinary Americans!
In reality, Daschle’s tax shortfall, an apparently honest mistake, was only a red flag for the larger syndrome that much of Washington still doesn’t get. It was the source, not the amount, of his unreported income that did him in. The car and driver advertised his post-Senate immersion in the greedy bipartisan culture of entitlement and crony capitalism that both helped create our economic meltdown (on Wall Street) and failed to police it (in Washington). Daschle might well have been the best choice to lead health-care reform. But his honorable public record was instantly vaporized by tales of his cozy, lucrative relationships with the very companies he’d have to adjudicate as health czar.
Few articulate this ethical morass better than Obama, who has repeatedly vowed to “close the revolving door” between business and government and end our “two sets of standards, one for powerful people and one for ordinary folks.” But his tough new restrictions on lobbyists (already compromised by inexplicable exceptions) and porous plan for salary caps on bailed-out bankers are only a down payment on this promise, even if they are strictly enforced.
The new president who vowed to change Washington’s culture will have to fight much harder to keep from being co-opted by it instead. There are simply too many major players in the Obama team who are either alumni of the financial bubble’s insiders’ club or of the somnambulant governmental establishment that presided over the catastrophe.
This includes Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary. Washington hands repeatedly observe how “lucky” Geithner was to be the first cabinet nominee with an I.R.S. problem, not the second, and therefore get confirmed by Congress while the getting was good. Whether or not this is “lucky” for him, it is hardly lucky for Obama. Geithner should have left ahead of Daschle.
Now more than ever, the president must inspire confidence and stave off panic. As Friday’s new unemployment figures showed, the economy kept plummeting while Congress postured. Though Obama is a genius at building public support, he is not Jesus and he can’t do it all alone. On Monday, it’s Geithner who will unveil the thorniest piece of the economic recovery plan to date — phase two of a bank rescue. The public face of this inevitably controversial package is now best known as the guy who escaped the tax reckoning that brought Daschle down.
Even before the revelation of his tax delinquency, the new Treasury secretary was a dubious choice to make this pitch. Geithner was present at the creation of the first, ineffectual and opaque bank bailout — TARP, today the most radioactive acronym in American politics. Now the double standard that allowed him to wriggle out of his tax mess is a metaphor for the double standard of the policy he must sell: Most “ordinary Americans” still don’t understand why banks got billions while nothing was done (and still isn’t being done) to bail out those who lost their homes, jobs and retirement savings.
As with Daschle, the political problems caused by Geithner’s tax infraction are secondary to the larger questions raised by his past interaction with the corporations now under his purview. To his credit, Geithner, like Obama, has devoted his career to public service, not buckraking. But he still has not satisfactorily explained why, as president of the New York Fed, he failed in his oversight of the teetering Wall Street institutions. Nor has he told us why, in his first major move in his new job, he secured a waiver from Obama to hire a Goldman Sachs lobbyist as his chief of staff. Nor, in his confirmation hearings, did he prove any more credible than the Bush Treasury secretary, the Goldman Sachs alumnus Hank Paulson, in explaining why Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail while A.I.G. and Citigroup were spared.
Citigroup had one highly visible asset that Lehman did not: Robert Rubin, the former Clinton Treasury secretary who sat passively (though lucratively) in its executive suite as Citi gorged on reckless risk. Geithner, as a Rubin protégé from the Clinton years, might have recused himself from rescuing Citi, which so far has devoured $45 billion in bailout money.
Key players in the Obama economic team beyond Geithner are also tied to Rubin or Citigroup or both, from Larry Summers, the administration’s top economic adviser, to Gary Gensler, the newly named nominee to run the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and a Treasury undersecretary in the Clinton administration. Back then, Summers and Gensler joined hands with Phil Gramm to ward off regulation of the derivative markets that have since brought the banking system to ruin. We must take it on faith that they have subsequently had judgment transplants.
Obama’s brilliant appointees, we keep being told, are irreplaceable. But as de Gaulle said, “The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men.” You have to wonder if this team is really a meritocracy or merely a stacked deck. Not only did Rubin himself serve on the Obama economic transition team, but two of the transition’s headhunters were Michael Froman, Rubin’s chief of staff at Treasury and later a Citigroup executive, and James S. Rubin, an investor who is Robert Rubin’s son.
A welcome outlier to this club is Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman chosen to direct Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. But Bloomberg reported last week that Summers is already freezing Volcker out of many of his deliberations on economic policy. This sounds like the arrogant Summers who was fired as president of Harvard, not the chastened new Summers advertised at the time of his appointment. A team of rivals is not his thing.
Americans have had enough of such arrogance, whether in the public or private sectors, whether Democrat or Republican. Voters turned on Sarah Palin not just because of her manifest unfitness for office but because her claims of being a regular hockey mom were contradicted by her Evita shopping sprees. John McCain’s sanctification of Joe the Plumber (himself a tax delinquent) never could be squared with his inability to remember how many houses he owned. A graphic act of entitlement also stripped naked that faux populist John Edwards.
The public’s revulsion isn’t mindless class hatred. As Obama said on Wednesday of his fellow citizens: “We don’t disparage wealth. We don’t begrudge anybody for achieving success.” But we do know that the system has been fixed for too long. The gaping income inequality of the past decade — the top 1 percent of America’s earners received more than 20 percent of the total national income — has not been seen since the run-up to the Great Depression.
This is why “Slumdog Millionaire,” which pits a hard-working young man in Mumbai against a corrupt nexus of money and privilege, has become America’s movie of the year. As Robert Reich, the former Clinton labor secretary, wrote after Daschle’s fall, Americans “resent people who appear to be living high off a system dominated by insiders with the right connections.”
The neo-Hoover Republicans in Congress, who think government can put Americans back to work with corporate tax cuts but without any “spending,” are tone deaf to this rage. Obama is not. It’s a good thing he’s getting out of Washington this week to barnstorm the country about the crisis at hand. Once back home, he’s got to make certain that the insiders in his own White House know who’s the boss.