Commentary: It's time for the change we were promised

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 6, 2009 

Welcome to Washington, D.C. The paint isn't dry on the bathroom walls in the White House, and already President Barack Obama is negotiating his way through the quicksand traps and political cesspools of our capital, and poorly at that.

The trouble arises not because the new president arrived with too many arrows of radical change in his quiver, but because he promptly fell into that notorious sinkhole called business as usual.

On the campaign trail, Obama promised higher ethical standards in government and a bar on lobbyists serving in his administration.

So far, two of his nominees for cabinet jobs have been forced to withdraw even before they got to their confirmation hearings — Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico because of an ongoing grand jury probe into pay-for-play contracting back home and former Sen. Tom Daschle for waiting far too late to pay more than $100,000 he owed in income taxes.

A third, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, somehow slid through his confirmation even though he had to cough up $34,000 at the last minute to pay his back taxes.

The president's choice for the new job of White House chief performance officer, Nancy Killefer, resigned when her own unspecified tax problems came to light.

The bar for lobbyists and others with conflicts of interest was promptly lowered near the ground to allow Obama's nominee for undersecretary of defense, Bill Lynn, to sashay through the revolving door from his executive position at a major defense contracting firm.

Out beyond the Beltway, the people who voted for Obama expect far better than this when it comes to honest and open government.

Then there's all this reaching across the aisles to the Republican minority in Congress. All this bipartisan kumbaya stuff on the most recent bailout bill earned Obama only a unanimous Republican no vote in the House of Representatives and attracted only the votes of the smattering of moderate demi-Republicans in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the Republican leaders that Obama courted so assiduously race outside to stand before the television cameras and open new cans of whup-ass on the president.

On the credit side of the ledger, President Obama did something breathtaking: He went on national television and said: "I screwed up."

Imagine that. A chief executive taking responsibility for things that went wrong. Maybe Obama could dust off the old wooden sign that adorned Harry S. Truman's desk in the Oval Office and declared: "The Buck Stops Here."

The buck never stopped anywhere in Washington during George W. Bush's administration, and certainly never in the Oval Office. It was just as elusive during the eight years of William J. Clinton, and it paused rarely, if at all, during all the other presidencies dating back to, you guessed it, Harry Truman.

Also to his credit, the new president seemed to be figuring out that even if he turned the bailout bill into nothing more than a trillion dollar tax cut for rich people, the Republicans on Capitol Hill would still be out on his front stoop denouncing him.

With only a couple of exceptions, both of them from the state of Maine, Capitol Hill has been swept clean of all but the most hard-line, unreconstructed, die-hard Republicans. There's no point for a Democratic president to engage them in anything but hand-to-hand combat.

People voted for Barack Obama because he promised change; because he promised to clean up the corrupt political culture in Washington; because he said he'd be different.

They want to see evidence of that change, and it must come quickly as the nation sinks deeper into recession and flirts with depression. Last month, more than 600,000 Americans lost their jobs. Last month, hundreds of thousands of others lost their homes.

All the Republicans can do is whine that the economic stimulus bill has become, of all things, a "spending bill." They overlook the fact that the only one thing that can stimulate an economy in free fall is government spending; that is, injecting money into the sectors of our economy where folks are losing their jobs, their savings and their houses.

Cutting taxes for comfortably employed, well-off Americans who, if they have any sense at all, will promptly deposit the savings in their bank accounts, won't stimulate a damn thing but gratitude for the Republican Party.

President Obama has a bully pulpit. He needs to talk turkey to the people who elected him. He needs to tell the Republicans to take a hike. He needs to use the whip on his own staff and advisers, who should be inspecting potential appointees with a proctologist's gusto.

He needs to pursue an agenda that's anything but business as usual, and he needs to get cracking on it right now.

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