Obama runs into hard-learned lessons

Did President Barack Obama screw up by admitting he "screwed up?" It wasn't Obama's most elegant quote, but it was one of his most significant moments. It was so significant that he repeated it on one broadcast network after another.

Did President Barack Obama screw up by admitting he "screwed up?" It wasn't Obama's most elegant quote, but it was one of his most significant moments. It was so significant that he repeated it on one broadcast network after another.

He was downcast that former Sen. Tom Daschle, Obama's choice to be secretary of Health and Human Services had withdrawn. Yet, the new president seemed unusually eager to take the blame for a blunder, even if it annoyed his supporters by offering a moment of aid and comfort to his political rivals.

Such candor marked a radical break with the cultural mainstream of official Washington, where many mistakes often are made, but seldom admitted and almost never really punished.

Yet, by owning up to a mistake in the honeymoon days of his new administration, Obama met at least one modest measure of the change he promised. His predecessor President George W. Bush seldom made a mistake that he later could remember making.

And, what did Obama actually confess to? He didn't say he screwed up by picking Daschle, who was exceptionally qualified to help spearhead Obama's promised health care transformation.


Nor did he say he screwed up by sticking with a man who had been an important mentor in the Senate -- even after Daschle's appointment grew toxic with revelations of problems with taxes, limousines and too-cozy relations with the health industry his department would be regulating.

No, as the president told CBS, "I screwed up in not recognizing the perception."

It was not the wrongness of the choice that scuttled Daschle's appointment in Obama's view, but the perception of wrongness.

If so, the experience has taught Obama some valuable lessons about how Washington works.

Lesson One: Politics is at least 90 percent perceptions.

Lesson Two: The world looks a lot different from inside Washington's Beltway than it looks in the real world.

Lesson Three: Don't demonize lobbyists too much. You may need them later.

Blaming Washington's woes on lobbyists makes a great applause line on the stump. Obama used it often, especially against Sen. Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries, where audiences seldom have met a lobbyist or heard of one that they did not detest.


Sen. Clinton was nearly hooted off the stage when she offered during a debate that quite a few lobbyists actually represent worthy liberal causes and don't just do it for big bucks. She shouldn't have bothered. Even lobbyists are reluctant to applaud lobbyists, except maybe in a crowd of fellow lobbyists.

No, it's easier to diss lobbyists and other Washington insiders, until you're elected and need some expert help to enact new programs that you have promised.

In that sense, Obama may have been looking at the growing dustup over Daschle as a lawyer might. After all, Daschle was not a registered lobbyist. He was only living like one. He earned millions at a law firm, even though he was not a lawyer. Only in Washington's peculiar culture is this so common that it does not raise eyebrows.

Which offers another lesson to the new president: The real scandal regarding Daschle and other appointees with tax troubles is this: Too many of the lawmakers who write our tax laws don't seem to be able to understand the laws well enough to comply with them.

Daschle dropped out "deeply" apologetic over his failure to pay $128,000 in federal taxes, including some for limousine services that gave new meaning to the label "limousine liberal."

That revelation came after Obama's Treasure Secretary Timothy Geithner survived similar tax troubles, such as his claiming a deduction for his children's sleep-away camp, a deduction for which only day camps are eligible.

Obama vowed to usher in what he would call in his Inaugural Address a "new era of responsibility." At best, Washington's good-government crowd allows that his new ethics rules offer an improvement, even though Obama already has asked for waivers to allow valuable appointments like William J. Lynn III, an ex-Raytheon lobbyist, to be deputy defense secretary.

Every new president receives on-the-job training. If Obama wants our forgiveness for his early stumbles, there's at least one other big reform for which he should push: Make the federal tax code so simple that even the people who create it can understand it.


-- Page writes for Tribune Media Services.

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