Tom Daschle’s implosion-by-free-limo-rides is clearly a short-term setback for President Obama. It slows his first-100-days momentum by cranking up the media and Republican noise machines, and diverts attention from actual policy issues to Obama’s vetting competence. And it may be a practical-politics loss as well: Perhaps Daschle was exactly the Washington insider, beloved by his former Senate colleagues, who was needed to make universal health care a legislative reality. And Daschle’s tactical advice to Obama on a wide range of subjects will now come from a greater distance, and from a damaged adviser.
Yet in the bigger picture, the demise of Daschle could be a very good thing for Obama. Not because Daschle’s tax sins were particularly venal (or, depressingly enough, particularly unusual in power-elite circles) or because his was a corruption that would have stained the otherwise ethically pure administration. But because it may encourage Obama to be bolder and more creative in both personnel and policy.
One of the things that was most laughable during the presidential campaign was the Republican attempt to paint Obama as a radical. Certainly his ethnicity and upbringing are far outside the conventional American path to the White House. But Obama, in his rise through the Chicago political swamp and in most of his thinking about policy, has been utterly conservative: He wants to work inside the system, not blow it up. “Change We Can Believe In” leans as heavily on belief as it does on change, and is a world away from, say, “Fight the Power.”
Some of what Obama claims he wants to do, however, is deeply radical — nothing more so than shifting the health-care game away from the insurance industry and health-care lobby and toward the premium-paying patient and, more important, covering the rapidly growing group of people who can’t afford coverage. Obama and some of his aides talk about not wasting the current financial crisis — that it gives the president an opportunity for big leaps instead of incremental steps as he tries to build a new 21st-century economy. Yet Daschle, even before his tax problems, was a compromise agent, not a change agent; a representative of the special-interest forces that have bogged down the country (see the work of economist Mancur Olson, tidily summarized in last Sunday’s Times Magazine cover story). Daschle’s health-care system would most likely have been an improvement, but a grudging one. His exit is a reminder that uprooting the entrenched interests, and truly transforming the status quo, means finding people who aren’t, to use an excellent image from last year’s campaign speeches, marinated in Washington’s old ways. Painful as it may be for him at the moment, no one needed that reminder more than President Obama. And no one, in the long run, stands to benefit from it more.