What gives with the Obama Cabinet problems?
February 4, 2009 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Did Obama make bad picks, in terms of the recent revelations of tax problems, for some of his Cabinet officials, has he had bad luck, is this par for the course, or is there more scrutiny now than in the past?

I've found myself wondering why so many of Obama's Cabinet picks have gone down in flames over tax issues. In the past I wouldn't have paid much attention to whether or not a nominee for a Cabinet post was rejected or whether there was any controversy over their taxes, so I can't recall whether or not other recent presidents, going back to, say, Carter, have had similar troubles.

Honestly, I personally wouldn't have been phased by any of the revelations which have come out about any of Obama's nominee's, even the troubles of Tom Daschle, even if they had been made against Cabinet Secretaries in prior administrations. So I'm wondering if there is a new standard, or whether these sorts of problems have cropped up for past presidents, or whether Obama has just made some unusually bad choices.
posted by Reverend John to Law & Government (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Ezra Klein says its due to Obama's "Change in Washington" campaign rhetoric

Plus the high standards which are normally applied to Democrats but not Republicans.
posted by goethean at 9:04 AM on February 4, 2009

The Republicans get criticized for forgetting the people and the Democrats are thrown under the bus for being surrounded by constant controversy. It is the politics. But I think it could be the quick pace Obama chose his Cabinet. I understand that the economy is in peril and he wanted to get the people around him ready to fix the economy instead of running through nomination picks, but perhaps he did overlook certain things just to get the right people into the right positions in order to get to the matters at hand.

I do believe that people crave drama and with all the wars and the global recession we are in, we would have enough, but people love personal drama. And who else but the Democrats to provide such? I think a lot of things are getting blown out of proportion and a great deal of attention needs to be paid to the important issues instead of tax evasion.
posted by penguingrl at 9:06 AM on February 4, 2009

I remember Clinton had trouble with some of his nominees, mentioned in passing here.
posted by immlass at 9:06 AM on February 4, 2009

I have to think that, in Daschle's case, where the problems were so egregious (compared to those of Killefer, where the amount of money in question is apparently under $1000), there had to be some amount of willful ignorance on the issue. If Obama wants to set universal healthcare as a priority, Daschle was literally the perfect choice to shepherd legislation through. He was, in addition, something of a mentor to Obama, and much of his staff moved to Obama's office in '05. I'm not alleging any collusion, but I think Daschle might have been less thoroughly vetted than he could have been due to personal and political factors.
posted by Bromius at 9:11 AM on February 4, 2009

My recollection of the media coverage of Clinton's cabinet picks is that it felt pretty much exactly like what's going on now. The thing with Zoe Baird in particular was quite a big deal at the time.
posted by HotToddy at 9:15 AM on February 4, 2009

I don't think the problems with Geithner or Killefer were really that big of a deal. With Geithner it was apparently a pretty common mistake and it was one made on "ordinary" money made at an "ordinary" job. I think Killefer just looked at what was going on with Daschle and thought to herself "Fuck this!" I don't think it would have caused her problems, but she probably just didn't want to deal with it. Her job wouldn't have given her a lot of sway over policy or anything like that.

Also, keep in mind Al Franken had some pretty big tax problems when started his Senate run. He ended up paying about $70k in back taxes for work he'd done in various states around the country. It didn't stop him from getting elected, assuming he wins his court case.

The real problem for me was the way he made his money/taxable services. I mean, he hops out of congress and all of a sudden wall street tycoons are just handing out free Limo service? He's making millions in "Speaking fees" from the very health insurance companies that have been fighting universal health care for decades!

Whoever is going to help the U.S. get universal healthcare is going to need to be someone with impeccable credentials and Daschle isn't it.
posted by delmoi at 9:27 AM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm not alleging any collusion, but I think Daschle might have been less thoroughly vetted than he could have been due to personal and political factors.

I suspect that Daschle having been so heavily in the public eye for so many years might also have something to do with this. Perhaps there was a (wrong) assumption that since he'd been through so many campaigns that one of his opponents would have already dug up the worst dirt on him.
posted by anastasiav at 9:45 AM on February 4, 2009

My old seventh grade social studies teacher had a saying, which I doubt was original, but has always stuck with me; "You only have to do two things in life; pay taxes, and die."

As a Democrat and major Obama supporter, I am heartened by the fact that at least two tax cheats will not be a part of his administration.

Oh how I would love to be able to breathe the rarefied air of those who get away with forgetting to pay the kind of tax obligation that Daschle had.

Also, I think odinsdream pretty much hit the nail on the head.
posted by imjustsaying at 9:54 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Couple comments removed. Let's not get into a general political bull session, please.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:55 AM on February 4, 2009

Best answer: This is just classic, every-day, Washington politics. For the most part, Obama's picks have been pretty controversy-free. But you've got to expect some trouble when you provide such an easy story-line for the press to run with: a pattern of tax evasion.

As for Daschle specifically, if the Dems were solidly behind him then he'd still be in the running. The real issue is that his connections to the healthcare industry were going to create problems at every turn. Remember Cheney and energy policy? This is the same shoe on the other foot, and the Dems (wisely) decided that it would be foolish to provide such an easy method for derailing any changes to the US healthcare system.
posted by wabashbdw at 10:13 AM on February 4, 2009

Keep in mind that things may not be as they seem. A supposed resignation over tax irregularities could enable an appointee to quietly withdraw from public scrutiny before larger, more damaging allegations (just beginning to surface) arose.

The best handlers and public relations teams are proactive. And they're masters at The SmokeScreen. You see it all the time: stars "going on vacations" (drug rehab); athletes "recovering from injuries" (mental breakdown); CEO's "pursuing new personal ventures" (battling serious illness). There may be more to the resignations than is being released to the media and public.
posted by terranova at 10:27 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've found myself wondering why so many of Obama's Cabinet picks have gone down in flames over tax issues.

"So many?" Only one Cabinet pick (Daschle) could reasonably be said to have "gone down in flames."
Geithner was confirmed by the Senate for his cabinet position, in spite of his tax issues.
Killefer's nomination was not for a Cabinet position.

To expound on the last one a bit, I get the feeling that Obama's actions his first few weeks in office are getting a lot more media attention than any president before him (at least in my lifetime, since Nixon), at least partly due to the high expectations that many have for him. I certainly don't remember news discussing every single House and Senate vote (even cloture votes!) during the first few weeks of previous administrations. It's hard to make a direct comparison, since the position Killefer was nominated for is a brand new one, but I suspect that a withdrawl of a candidate for a non-Cabinet post barely would have made a blip in the news in previous administrations.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:46 AM on February 4, 2009

There was a segment on The Daily Show about how every Monday of the Obama Administration, the US has shed jobs.

Technically true, but a perfect example of the crazy amount of attention around this President, at least at this point.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:49 AM on February 4, 2009

Best answer: Daschle is an atypical case and was probably something of a gamble to get him through, but show me a wealthy person without tax problems. Once you make a certain level of money (or have x amount of capial) then taxes become pretty complex and hefty. You and your accountant look for every way possible to save money. Toss in running your own business or consultancy then its twice as complex. Working with NGOs? Even more complex.

Taxes and maids are two ways to challenge any appointment. I dont think there's any pattern here.

That said, I agree with wabashbdw. Daschle made more than one strike against him and was too much of a risk.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:05 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's a historical listing of cabinet nominations rejected or withdrawn. From Carter forward, I did some googling on the nominees and found they faced controversy for a variety of reasons, with Linda Chavez coming the closest to withdrawing over tax issues.

George Bush Cabinet
- John G. Tower, Defense, rejected

Bill Clinton Cabinet
- Zoe E. Baird and Kimba Wood, Attorney General, withdrawn
- Anthony Lake, CIA, withdrawn
- Hershel Gober, Veterans Affairs, withdrawn

George W. Bush Cabinet
- Linda Chavez, Labor, withdrawn
- Bernard Kerik, Homeland Security, withdrawn
posted by hoppytoad at 11:15 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hoppytoad's link also has a lengthy history of cabinet nominations in the Senate. I'd say that once you start investigating people, you tend to find stuff, and that the difference is taht before Tower, the Senate didn't really investigate people.
posted by smackfu at 11:21 AM on February 4, 2009

I truly think that at that level of the game, no matter what political party, you are gonna more often than not have folks with ...problems. Odinsdream nailed it with his response.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:43 AM on February 4, 2009

All of these are good answers. Also, due to Teh Internets, so much stuff that was, at one time considered "Inside Baseball" by political journalists now gets made into a big deal. We saw this over and over again in during the election.
posted by lunasol at 12:10 PM on February 4, 2009

Bernard Kerik, Homeland Security, withdrawn

Good times.
posted by goethean at 9:45 AM on February 12, 2009

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