Obama’s Pledge to Reform Ethics Faces an Early Test

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The New York Times

Obama’s Pledge to Reform Ethics Faces an Early Test

by
Peter Baker

Former US Sen. Tom Daschle(L), seen here on December 11, 2008, listens as US president-elect Barack Obama nominates him to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Chicago. Obama said he "absolutely" stands by his nominee for health secretary Tom Daschle, who is facing questions over his late payment of over 100,000 dollars in back taxes. (AFP/File/Nicholas Kamm)

WASHINGTON - During almost two years on the campaign trail, Barack Obama vowed to slay the demons of Washington, bar lobbyists from his administration and usher in what he would later call in his Inaugural Address a "new era of responsibility." What he did not talk much about were the asterisks.

The exceptions that went unmentioned now include a pair of cabinet nominees who did not pay all of their taxes. Then there is the lobbyist for a military contractor who is now slated to become the No. 2 official in the Pentagon. And there are the others brought into government from the influence industry even if not formally registered as lobbyists.

President Obama said Monday that he was "absolutely" standing behind former Senator Tom Daschle, his nominee for health and human services secretary, and Mr. Daschle, who met late in the day with leading senators in an effort to keep his confirmation on track, said he had "no excuse" and wanted to "deeply apologize" for his failure to pay $128,000 in federal taxes.

But the episode has already shown how, when faced with the perennial clash between campaign rhetoric and Washington reality, Mr. Obama has proved willing to compromise.

Every four or eight years a new president arrives in town, declares his determination to cleanse a dirty process and invariably winds up trying to reconcile the clear ideals of electioneering with the muddy business of governing. Mr. Obama on his first day in office imposed perhaps the toughest ethics rules of any president in modern times, and since then he and his advisers have been trying to explain why they do not cover this case or that case.

"This is a big problem for Obama, especially because it was such a major, major promise," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "He harped on it, time after time, and he created a sense of expectation around the country. This is exactly why people are skeptical of politicians, because change we can believe in is not the same thing as business as usual."

And so in these opening days of the administration, the Obama team finds itself being criticized by bloggers on the left and the right, mocked by television comics and questioned by reporters about whether Mr. Obama is really changing the way Washington works or just changing which political party works it.

Some Republicans saw a double standard. "What would it be like if Hank Paulson had come in without paying his taxes, or any other member of the cabinet?" asked Terry Nelson, a political strategist who worked for President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, referring to Mr. Bush's Treasury secretary. "It would be roundly attacked and roundly criticized."

Several Democrats, including some who have advised Mr. Obama, said privately that he had only himself to blame for delivering such an uncompromising message as a candidate without recognizing how it would complicate his ability to assemble an administration.

In the campaign, Mr. Obama assailed Washington's "entire culture" in which "our leaders have thrown open the doors of Congress and the White House to an army of Washington lobbyists who have turned our government into a game only they can afford to play." He vowed to "close the revolving door" and "clean up both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue" with "the most sweeping ethics reform in history."

The language, however, was always more sweeping than the specifics. He spoke of refusing campaign money from lobbyists but took it from the people who hired them. The ethics plan he outlined, and eventually imposed on his administration, did not ban all lobbyists outright but set conditions for their employment and did not cover many who were lobbyists in everything but name.

Mr. Daschle, for instance, is not a registered lobbyist, but he made a handsome living advising clients seeking influence with the government, including some in the health industry. Mr. Obama also gave himself the right to grant waivers in cases he deemed exceptional, most prominently to William J. Lynn III, an ex-Raytheon lobbyist he nominated as deputy defense secretary. Others were lobbyists more than two years ago, and therefore not covered by the Obama rules.

Some who worked as lobbyists have found places in the administration, including Mark Patterson, who represented Goldman Sachs and is now chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. William V. Corr, who lobbied for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, has been selected as deputy health and human services secretary.

Obama advisers said that the exceptions were minimal given the thousands to be hired and that appointees would be barred from work on issues they lobbied on in the last two years. The exceptions, they said, were needed for particular skills and experience.

Some advocates said the rules were still more significant than any previously imposed. "This is a direct attack on the culture of Washington and in an extremely powerful way," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, an advocacy group.

As for Mr. Daschle and Mr. Geithner, who also failed to pay some taxes, White House officials said the errors should not obscure their records. Mr. Obama "believes that both Secretary Geithner and Secretary-Designate Daschle are the right people for very important jobs," said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, "and he does not believe that that will undercut their ability to move forward on an agenda that makes sense for the American people."

That argument has drawn sharp criticism from left and right. "Is this really the message he wants to convey to voters in just his first month in office, a message that it's O.K. to break or skirt the law just as long as you're a good guy with a special skill set?" asked Andy Ostroy, a blogger writing on The Huffington Post, a liberal Web site.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, a liberal magazine, said Mr. Obama should withdraw Mr. Daschle's nomination to "revive the change brand he campaigned and won on."

Mr. Obama is running into crosscurrents that bedeviled his predecessors. Jimmy Carter promised a new day in Washington after Watergate but still found top associates caught up in scandal. Bill Clinton promised "the most ethical administration in history" and then endured the most independent counsel investigations in history. Mr. Bush vowed a new era of responsibility only to be accused of selling out to energy and military industries.

Jody Powell, who was Mr. Carter's press secretary and later founded a prominent lobbying firm, said it was better to establish lofty goals that might not be met than to not have any at all.

"If you set standards, you're going to fall short on occasion and you're going to have to compromise on occasion," Mr. Powell said. "But you're probably also going to get more done."

David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting.

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