Tom Daschle being forced to withdraw from confirmation to be both Health and Human Services Secretary and the White House’s healthcare czar because of tax irregularities leaves Obama’s major domestic priority after the economy rudderless. Daschle, a former Senate Majority Leader, was picked because he was supposed to know how to get healthcare reform through Congress. The Obama administration knows where it wants to go on the issue and Daschle’s job was to steer them through the notoriously hard to navigate legislative shallows of the issue.
The damage done by Daschle’s withdrawal is increased by how close to Obama he was. Obama came to the Senate in the same electoral cycle that Daschle lost his seat and Obama hired some of Daschle’s staffers, including his chief of staff. Daschle then was an early booster of Obama’s presidential run, giving Obama’s insurgent candidacy establishment credibility. For someone so close to Obama to have to stand down for not paying taxes on a car given to him by a wealthy businessman, taints Obama’s new politics reputation.
At a time when so much of politics is about condemning the irresponsible behaviour of the Wall Street financiers who have had to be bailed out, Obama has lost the moral high ground. It is far harder to convincingly denounce corporate excess and tax dodging when your own Treasury Secretary didn’t pay his taxes in full, when one of your earliest and most influential supporters has had to step aside because of not paying tax on a perk and the person you hired as your chief performance officer—to enforce accountability across government—has also had to withdraw because of tax irregularities.
Yesterday was meant to be the day that Obama began a public push for his stimulus package with a round of network news interviews. Instead, the interviews were dominated by the withdrawals. Meanwhile, the stimulus bill is struggling badly in the Senate. Obama’s authority has been dented at just the time that he needs to knock Senatorial heads together if his first 100 days is not to turn into as much of a catalogue of missteps as Clinton’s did.