Tom Daschle never wanted to be secretary of Health and Human Services. Sure, he cared about health-care reform; sure, his combo of policy chops and legislative savvy arguably made him uniquely qualified for the task. But for much of last year, Daschle told friends that the job he coveted was White House chief of staff—until Barack Obama turned over that assignment to Rahm Emanuel. Daschle’s second choice, I’m told by one of his pals, was secretary of State, and he apparently was in the running for it—until Obama seized on the idea of giving the gig to Hillary Clinton. There are countless ironies surrounding the collapse of the Daschle nomination, but not least was that his humiliation came in pursuit of a consolation prize. Whether that made the pain greater or lesser is impossible to guess. But either way, the hurt was big.
And for Obama too—though what’s less clear is how long the bruise will last. The obvious parallel to the Daschle debacle is the Zoë Baird imbroglio, wherein Bill Clinton’s initial nominee for attorney general was forced to withdraw on Clinton’s first full day in office. Then as now, the salient controversy involved the failure to pay taxes on an haute bourgeois indulgence: in Daschle’s case, a borrowed car and driver; in Baird’s, a nanny and chauffeur who were undocumented immigrants. (Will these people never learn?) But once Clinton finally settled on Janet Reno as his AG, Baird was swiftly rendered a footnote in the annals of his presidency—and it’s easy to imagine a similar outcome in the case of Daschle.
Yet there is another, less benign reading of the Baird analogy. For Clinton, the episode was the first in a series of missteps (gays in the military, etc.) that culminated in the failure of his first significant legislative initiative: his $16 billion stimulus package. Even more damaging, however, was the cumulative degradation of Clinton’s political standing: He lost control of the agenda, the narrative, and his public image.
It should go without saying that 2009 isn’t 1993. And that 44 is a far cry from 42. Indeed, Obama’s handling of the Daschle fallout—the candid, grown-up, self-pity-free mea culpas that he offered in succession to five network anchors—was so refreshing and utterly un-Clintonian that it almost turned the entire embarrassment into a net positive for him. Moreover, Obama will almost certainly get his stimulus in the end, and winning salves many wounds. But in the process the president has been scuffed up, put on the defensive, come perilously close to losing the thread. At a minimum, it’s crashingly clear that his honeymoon is (already!) over.
The quick end of that sweet and blissful interval comes as something of a shock. There were five good reasons to expect that Obama's runway would be longer and less littered with obstructions than usual. The first was the smoothness of his transition and the superstar-laden lineup he installed. The second was the scale of the economic and financial crisis that confronts the country, which would seem to have raised the political cost of rank obstructionism. The third was the consensus from left to right that supersize action was required. The fourth was the magnitude of Obama’s electoral victory and the mandate it ostensibly bestowed. And fifth were his skills as a communicator, which even his staunchest foes were apt to compare to Ronald Reagan’s.
That these five factors have produced something less than a nirvana-like political environment can be blamed on an array of villains. The irresponsibility of congressional Republicans regarding the stimulus. The ham-fistedness of congressional Democrats (and their propensity to paint targets on their backs). The economic illiteracy of almost every talking head on cable. But there’s no denying that the bulk of the blame must be laid at the feet of the Obamans, who have squandered or let lay idle almost every political advantage they possessed at the outset.
Begin with the transition, so widely hailed back in December, but which by now is ripe for reappraisal. The Bill Richardson thing was a warning sign, since everyone in Democratic politics knew he had vetting issues. Then we have three major nominees—Daschle, Tim Geithner, and Nancy Killefer—who have run afoul of the tax code. Finally, we have the unseemly business of the waivers from Obama’s lobbying standards being handed out to Geithner’s chief of staff, who lobbied for Goldman Sachs, and the deputy secretary of Defense, who lobbied for Raytheon, on the grounds that, um, every policy has exemptions. Oh.
Unpleasant as all this has been, however, its political impact would have been substantially less had the stimulus been sailing along. But the House vote turned into a partisan knife fight, with Republicans slashing giddily at the dubious provisions—the contraceptives, the resodding of the National Mall—inserted by Democrats, carving it up as a fatback-festooned monstrosity concocted by drunk-at-the-punch-bowl liberals, winning the war to define the bill in the media.