Commentary: Changing DC won't come easy for Obama

The Miami HeraldFebruary 9, 2009 

"I screwed up." – President Barack Obama, Feb. 3, 2009

Wait a minute. He said that? There were cameras and microphones? Somebody caught it on tape?

Presidents don't say that. Bill Clinton never said that. George W. Bush would have cut off his tongue with rusty gardening shears before he said that. But you're telling me Barack Obama actually said it? These are the words that came out of his mouth in a series of interviews with network news anchors?

Oh, my stars and garters. Dylan was right. The times, they are a'changin'.

As a reader told me the other day, "I was almost unnerved by how refreshing it was to have a president openly make, correct and admit a mistake. What unnerved me is that I almost didn't care what the mistake was."

For the record, the mistake had to do with Obama undermining his own ethical standards by nominating former Sen. Tom Daschle as secretary of Health and Human Services and standing by him even after it was revealed he had neglected to pay over $128,000 in federal taxes. Daschle withdrew his name from consideration the same day Obama 'fessed up.

Two hours later, would-be chief White House performance officer Nancy Killefer also packed it in because she, too, was tainted by tax troubles. All this after Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's nomination was nearly swamped by the revelation that he owed $34,000 in back taxes. And, leave us not forget the administration asking for and receiving a waiver of its own ethics rules restricting lobbyists so that William J. Lynn III, a former lobbyist for Raytheon, could be installed as as deputy secretary of defense.

Taken together, it adds up to a worrisome pattern for an administration that campaigned on a vow to reform Washington's ethics. As Obama himself put it in one of the interviews, ". . . it's important for this administration to send a message that there aren't two sets of rules."

Yes, every president arrives in Washington with a promise to drain the swamp. And every president eventually finds the swamp draining him.

Inevitably, there comes a moment when the soap bubbles of campaigning meet the hard macadam of governing. The soap bubbles break, lofty promises and best intentions giving way before pragmatism and the need to get things done. It will happen for Obama, too. But the president must be more thoughtful than he has so far been in choosing when and how those moments come. Do it for healthcare, perhaps. Do it for the economy. But for Tom Daschle and William Lynn? No.

Like it or not, the rules are different for this president.

Don't believe me? Take a spin around town. Pick up a piece of chocolate sculpted in Obama's likeness at the candy store. Buy a copy of Spider-Man with Obama on the cover at the comic book shop. Pick up one of the dozens of Obama books at the bookstore. Stand among the people clad in Obama T-shirts and hoodies at the bus stop. Head over to the souvenir stand and load up on Obama calendars, cups, caps and key chains.

When is the last time you saw a president so . . . beloved? This is the source of Obama's great political power. It is also his political kryptonite.

Not to mix superhero metaphors, but as Obama's friend Spider-Man could tell him, with great power comes great responsibility. Barack Obama is seen as something new. The worst thing he could do is to act like something old – a politician cutting corners and talking from both sides of his mouth. Should that happen, the heights of the nation's adulation will be mirrored in the depths of its scorn. So he must be what he said he was.

Last week's moment of sparkling candor was a timely reminder, then, of the traits that are supposed to make this president different. Some of us needed that reminder.

Maybe he did, too.


Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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