As he settles into office, President Barack Obama appears to have been selecting Cabinet members for their expertise and the collective diversity of philosophy, experience and background they represent. That process has not come without stumbling blocks, though, and the recent revelation that Tom Daschle, who was chosen to be Health and Human Services secretary, had not paid more than $100,000 in taxes reveals that the Obama administration is just as susceptible to embarrassment as its predecessors.
Daschle, a former Democratic Senate leader who was defeated in his 2004 re-election bid, has been an adviser to several companies and nonprofit agencies that look for help with moving their agendas forward in Washington, D.C. Though there are no accusations that Daschle broke lobbying ethics rules, he was treated to the use of a chauffeured limousine by a friend at InterMedia Advisors, an investment company for which Daschle had recently become the founding chairman. Daschle realized last June that he had failed to pay taxes on the car service and other income not reported, and had his accountant look into the matter. In January, Daschle paid $140,000 for the car use over three years, as well other tax obligations not previously met.
Daschle's "realization," though it came at a time when his role in any presidential administration was a matter of theory at best, illustrates the level at which Washington power brokers operate - and how different that is from the experience of most Americans' daily lives. Most people who owe $140,000 in taxes are painfully aware of their obligation and are quite likely either in active negotiations with the Internal Revenue Service or are participating in some payment plan.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's nomination was slowed when it was discovered he had failed to pay more than $35,000 in self-employment taxes over several years, despite his knowledge of the obligation. As with Daschle, Geithner's tax lapse shows his place in a sphere that does not struggle with grocery bills and gas prices and other such daily expenses that challenge so many Americans, particularly in today's economic climate. That is not to say that either man is incapable of making good policies on behalf of all Americans, but it does demonstrate a disconnect that is widespread in Washington culture, regardless of past or party.
The closets of Cabinet nominees often contain an embarrassing bone or two, and it is certainly reasonable - if not refreshing - to have leaders with human flaws. It is slightly less so to have those who behave as though they are above the law because of their positions of power. That may or may not be the case with Daschle, Geithner or any of their predecessors in previous administrations, but a continuing sharper focus on ethics by all of those charged with doing the nation's business will help keep leaders honest in their personal, professional and political dealings. Such a focus would, in turn, increase presidential administrations' credibility - something all Americans seem to want.
The Obama administration is off to a decent start, with a lengthy list of difficult problems. Some of those problems are of Obama and his staff's own doing - insufficient vetting of Cabinet candidates, primarily. The best response to those challenges is to correct them and take all possible precautions to avoid them in the future. It would set a good example for the country Obama was elected to lead.