Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Highest Bar (posted to February 4, 2009

In his press briefing on February 4, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs asserted that President Obama has set the bar higher for integrity in his administration higher than it has ever been set in the history of the Presidency.

Let's assume for a minute that that is true and ask what it will mean for this already historic administration? First of all, as has already been demonstrated in the cases of Daschle, Geithner, and others, it means he will fail. If your standard is perfection or near-perfection, you can bet that you will fail and fail often. But it means something else as well, that is more important than failure.

Imagine you have a sink full of dirty dishes - what happens when you add one more dirty dish? It disappears - just one more of many. But if the sink is clean and empty, every dish put into it stands out and screams to be cleaned. By setting a very high standard for integrity, President Obama ensures that every flaw will show up to be dealt with. Most commentators have argued that Tom Daschle, a former Senate Majority Leader, would have been confirmed as Secretary of Health and Human Services despite his tax issues and even despite the fact that he was, after leaving the Senate, a lobbyist for a health care company. It has even been argued that the end would justify the means. Health care reform is a top priority for the Obama Administration, and Daschle was arguably the best available architect for the program and the best person to get it through Congress. But apparently, for this President, pragmatism doesn't trump integrity.

It is that last principle that is the best evidence for Gibbs' assertion. Bismarck said "politics is the art of the possible," and this adage has been the rationale for countless sacrifices of integrity for the sake of getting something done. Two things seem to suggest that this will not be the case for the Obama Administration - first, that otherwise stellar nominees such as Daschle and Richardson have, presumably on their own, popped out of the confirmation process, recognizing that they could not clear the bar. Second is that the President himself, in an interview on February 3rd, took full personal responsibility for the bar not being cleared. He didn't blame Daschle or the Senate or the Media - he said, in words to clear to be mistakable, "I screwed up." It's been a long time since we've heard those words from the occupant of the Oval Office.

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