Trials and Tribulations in the First Twenty Days

Why ‘Big Names’ Might Sink Obama’s ‘Big Plans’

Storm clouds have begun to gather since the bright, sunny day we welcomed Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. Faced with a seemingly intractable economic crisis and a Senate mired in the same kind of partisan squabbling that we all know and hate, there were few who truly expected the administration to fix the country in the first few weeks. I did not expect Barack Obama to resolve the crisis single-handedly. But, like many Americans, I expected more from the people the President picked to run his administration.

It’s not Barack Obama’s fault that Tim Geithner and Tom Daschle can’t pay their taxes, or that Larry Summers ’75 won’t let Paul Volcker, the chair of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, into White House meetings. But given the scope of the economic crisis, things like unpaid taxes might seem like a trivial thing to waste time on.

What is an issue is the underlying pathology of these people. Why didn’t Geithner and Daschle (among others) pay their taxes? Why, at such a critical time, is there discord amongst members of Obama’s economic team?

Geithner’s and Daschle’s tax troubles were “mistakes anybody could make.” That’s true. But these were avoidable mistakes and mistakes that stem from an “above-the-law” sense of entitlement that I would have come to expect from the Bush administration.

Case-in-point: Daschle’s unpaid taxes were largely taxes on a limousine and chauffeur service. The image of Daschle, the would-be health czar, kicked back in a stretch limo and not paying a dime for it while millions of Americans live without health care smacks of something Donald Rumsfeld would do.

Does any of this mean that people like Geithner, Daschle, or Summers wouldn’t make good administrators? In a sense, yes. It’s one thing to have the technical expertise to serve as Treasury or Health and Human Services Secretary. In that regard, all of Obama’s candidates have been exemplary picks. But it’s their sense of entitlement; the “above the law” arrogance which caused those tax slip-ups that makes them poor picks. On a psychological and even neurological level, people who can empathize with their constituents make fundamentally better policymakers.

Tim Geithner may have the number-crunching skills to serve as Treasury secretary, but relative to many Americans, he has no stake in the outcome of his decisions. And, in a very real way, that affects his ability to make policy. This type of empathic failure extends to Daschle and Summers and was pandemic in the Bush Administration. It will spread through the Obama administration if not addressed quickly. Then, it’ll most certainly be “the same old politics as usual.”

Fortunately, the President himself seems much more in touch with his constituents than the people he picked to run his administration. And he also seems like the kind of person who learns from his mistakes. He understands that he needs to pick people who are experienced and competent; that goes without saying. Now, he needs to grasp that the biggest names aren’t always the best names.

Too often, the biggest names tend to be the ones who can least empathize with and understand the people they’re trying to help. And no matter how good their intentions, understanding has a key role to play in policymaking. Obama must look for people who not only understand the economy and healthcare, but also the people whose lives depend on their decisions.