Obama’s First Bad Week

Barack Obama is certainly not the first president to get taken down a couple of rungs by nominees who get shipwrecked in their confirmation hearings. Bruised by these setbacks he has also taken serious fire for his $900 billion stimulus package, not just by Republicans but the sizable chunk of his own party who are Republicans in all but name. By the end of the week, particularly with his speech to the House Democrats at their retreat on Thursday night, there were encouraging signs that Obama was dropping the tedious nonsense about bipartisanship and beginning to fight like a man. A day later he had his deal and celebrated by adding three more corporate ghouls to his economic advisors.

But what’s been surprising in the last week is how a politician as smart as the new president could have failed to sense imminent peril concerning his nominations.

Since America’s political system is one of institutionalized bribery, overt (the legal political “donation”) and covert (the bag of cash ) and has a tax code with 50,000 pages of fine print, it stands to reason that of any ten nominees enduring scrutiny by White House investigators, by the staff of the Senate Finance Committee plus the occasional journalist probably 98 per cent will have some sort of explaining to do. Throw in infidelity and kindred offenses outlined at detail in the opening books of the Bible and maybe only Rep Ron Paul would survive.

Part of the problem is that most people reasonably think Mr Obama, who raised more money for his presidential run than anyone in history, is at the personal level an honest fellow. The last president who could be safely put in that category was Jimmy Carter. So when Obama puts up and then stands by nominees who are obviously severely compromised by corporate ties, odious enrichment or serious problems with the Internal Revenue Service they’re taken aback by such permissiveness in one so insistently high-minded in tone and so quick to announce supposedly tough new ethical guidelines for members of his administration.

On the one hand we have President Obama prohibiting individuals from working for government agencies they have lobbied in the past two years; on the other we have him nominating a defense industry lobbyist, William Lynn to be the number two man at the Pentagon, thus possibly the next Secretary of Defense. Lynn gets a waiver.

What’s amazing in the case of Tom Daschle, nominated to be Obama’s health czar, is the fact that neither the president, nor his staff, nor Daschle’s former colleagues in Congress nor the Washington press corps could see that his nomination was inherently preposterous, long before Daschle’s tax problems surfaced.  Was health reform’s best advocate to be a former US senator who managed to make $5.3 million in two years  trading on his former position as a rainmaker for a powerful law firm, hauling in consultancy and speaker fees from inmates of the self-same Augean stables he was charged, as Health Secretary-designate, with cleaning up?  Was he going to get a waiver too, like Lynn?

It’s not entirely clear why Daschle finally threw in the towel. The New York Times editorialized against him, but that’s not an automatic death sentence. His former senatorial colleagues blubbered with dismay when he quit, so they weren’t going to vote against him There is a theory that the White House felt Daschle couldn’t be allowed to survive his tax problems once Killefer had been forced to drop out. More likely, Daschle  or the White House felt another forkful of manure was about to drop out of his filing cabinet.  But the net effect of his withdrawal, and that  — also for tax problems — of  Nancy Killefer, Obama’s nominee as a White House budgetary watchdog, was to rekindle public indignation about the confirmation of Treasury Secretary of Tim Geithner.

Geithner only owes his position to the fact that the White House  felt that the infinitely more capable Larry Summers mightn’t survive  nomination hearings, if put forward for the job he held in Clinton-time. At issue was Summers’ role as Harvard’s president in the scandal-ridden collapse of a Harvard advisory program in Russia, for which the US government levied a fine of $31 million on Harvard and other parties.

As with Daschle no one seems to have been perturbed by Geithner’s CV. Geithner had worked for the IMF. No problem.  You can toil diligently for an outfit that is properly execrated as  the Waffen-SS of international financial institutions and no one raises a bleat. Stiff Uncle Sam by not paying Social Security taxes for the maid who cleaned your quarters in the SS compound and you’re in trouble!

Geithner’s an obvious light-weight. As Treasury Secretary he’s in overall charge of the IRS and since tax season is gathering on its haunches to pounce, tax filers probably feel encouraged that an admitted scofflaw is in charge of the chicken coop. Anything to lower the moral tone, particularly when you’re in anxious conclave with your accountant about what precisely you think you can get away with.

But Obama isn’t in the business of promoting moral relativism, so how come Geithner survived, when Daschle and Killefer, not to mention Bill Richardson (who withdrew as nominee for Commerce Secretary over charges of favoritism in contract awards) all went down? The populist answer you hear often enough is, What the bankers want, the bankers get, and they wanted Geithner. His designated role is to be prime exponent for their cause, which is continued government bail-out at tax-payers’ expense.

Geithner and his boss, president Obama, are all for ongoing bail-out of the banks, and – it seems – for the so-called “aggregator bank” or “bad bank” that will relieve at face value the bankers of their worthless assets. There’s talk of another $1 trillion or so for bank rescue. Senator Jim Tester of Montana said this week he thinks the bank bail-out tab will rise to $11 trillion.

As Daschle withdrew, Obama called in the networks seriatim and told them (this is from the NBC transcript)  that “I’ve got to own up to my mistake which is that ultimately it’s important for this administration to send a message that there aren’t two sets of rules. You know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes.”

After the lunatic obduracy of Bush Jr that he’d never made a mistake, it was refreshing to hear a president admit equably he’d screwed up, though he probably shouldn’t do it again for at least  a year. But people aren’t so stupid as not to realize that what nomination hearings mostly show is that there are indeed two sets of rules and Geithner’s successful confirmation and the ongoing bank bailouts confirm they are securely in place, however manifestly honest a fellow the new occupant of the White House may be.

Incidentally, there’s something  distinctly sexist about the treatment according Killefer (gone) and Hilda Solis, whose confirmation hearing as Labor Secretary has now been suspended. Both these women’s supposed problems with  the IRS are in a different category to Daschle’s and Geithner’s defalcations. Solis’ purported problem is that her husband has a federal tax lien against his name in the public record. Killefer’s difficulty was $900 in unpaid unemployment taxes for domestic help in 2005. Really! This is all an argument for the flat tax.  Of course Solis’ real problem is that she supports the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would make it easier for workers to unionize.  Republicans and many Democrats in Congress have been told firmly by their corporate sponsors that EFCA must not pass.

Dr Gupta’s Case Book

Of all the nominations and suggested appointments to Obama’s team, the proposed installation of CNN’s TV doc, Sanjay Gupta, as Surgeon-General is possibly the most frivolously objectionable, just as Daschle’s was one of the most arrogantly disgusting.  Why not go the whole hog and put up Hugh Laurie?

I’m glad to say that CounterPunch can make available a measured dissection of Doc Gupta’s qualifications by Vicente Navarro, long recognized as an authoritative voice on genuine health reform. In the new edition of our newsletter, Navarro reviews Gupta’s services to the pharmaceutical industry, his ignorance about public health issues and his opposition to Single Payer and writes:

“I find it highly worrisome that Dr. Sanjay Gupta is likely to be appointed head of the USPHS. He is not an expert on public health and is not sufficiently knowledgeable, or competent, to do the job. Training and experience in neurosurgery do not provide the public health knowledge that the position requires. But, what is far more alarming is that he will most likely be the media spokesperson for the task force on health care reform. And this means that a person hostile to a single-payer system (the type of system that has most support among people in the U.S.); a person clearly unsympathetic to the principle of the government’s guaranteeing universality of health care coverage; a person who is  part of the media that have been obfuscating, negating, and avoiding the real problems in health and medical care in this country , will be in control of selling the message of change in U.S. medical care. Is this the change we were promised by candidate Obama?”

It’s an important piece. Also in this new edition of the newsletter  is an exceptionally powerful and well informed review by Bruce Page  of Michael Wolff’s slavish new book The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch. Page, a renowned reporter and editor,  takes a scalpel to  Murdoch-myths; excavates the infamous role of his father in sliming with anti-Semitic slurs one of Australia’s authentic heroes; exposes the utter fraudulence of claims by himself and his acolytes that Murdoch is somehow a rebel and a thorn in the side of the Establishment; dissects  the degraded nature of his journalism and his tireless whoring  of his properties to the powerful.

And also in this new edition of our newsletter, part 2 of Paul Craig Roberts’ brief outline of economics – the shortest, sharpest ever written. This one’s on the myth of “free trade”.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.