By Michael D. Shear and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 5, 2009
As he insists that ethical standards should be the same for both the powerful and the people, critics say that President Obama is looking the other way when it comes to his Treasury secretary.
Timothy F. Geithner, like former senator and Cabinet nominee Thomas A. Daschle, failed to pay his taxes. Both men settled their debts, some after being tapped by Obama. Both operate in an elite sphere of financial and political influence.
But as Daschle heads back to a life as a private citizen, Geithner sits in his office at the Treasury Department, leading the nation's effort to avoid an economic collapse.
"I don't want to send a message to the American people that there are two sets of standards, one for powerful people and one for ordinary folks who are working every day and paying their taxes," Obama told CNN's Anderson Cooper on Tuesday.
Obama made that statement after Daschle's decision to withdraw from consideration as secretary of health and human services because of his failure to pay more than $128,000 in taxes, most notably on the use of a limousine and personal chauffeur.
But the president and his White House continue to stand behind their Treasury secretary, who was confirmed despite his own $43,000 tax-mistake scandal.
"I think everybody makes mistakes," Obama told ABC News on Tuesday. "Tim owned up to them. And I think I've been very clear of the fact that this was a bad mistake. I don't think it was purposeful, but I think it was a mistake."
Critics of the new administration continue to press their case against Geithner despite his confirmation. They say his presence in the administration highlights the flexibility of Obama's ethical standards.
"It's clear the rules that applied to some nominees -- not to mention average taxpayers -- did not apply to Secretary Geithner," said Alex Conant, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "President Obama has not explained which set of rules Secretary Geithner falls into. So far, there's a bit of a disconnect between his campaign's rhetoric and his administration's record."
Conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham asked on NBC's "Today" yesterday: "How is it a screw-up to have chosen Daschle, but 'a solid pick' is the words used to describe Tim Geithner?"
Politically, Daschle's situation was more difficult than Geithner's, in part because the former senator did not tell Obama's vetters about the tax problem until after his nomination was announced. Daschle was also burdened by ties to a lobbying culture that Obama had decried repeatedly on the campaign trail. The Democrat from South Dakota, while technically not a lobbyist, was employed by a firm that lobbied in Washington.
But it was the source of his tax problems -- related to his repeated use of a friend's limousine -- that heightened the perception problem among a public already angry at the wealthy and connected.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters yesterday that there was not a double standard applied to Daschle and Geithner.
"Obviously, Senator Daschle made a decision to withdraw his appointment. And as I said yesterday, Mr. Geithner has gone through a process in the Senate that included passage through the committee and passage through the full Senate with bipartisan support, and is now the secretary of the Treasury."
Asked whether that did not suggest a double standard, since the only difference between the two was that Daschle stepped aside, Gibbs replied: "No."
"We can look at a lot of rearview-mirroring in different decisions, but I think the president probably did what many people don't here in this town a lot, and that's take responsibility and set a very high standard for himself and the administration," Gibbs said.
Still, it appeared that Obama was the most repentant member of his administration, as officials continued to say, privately and publicly, that Daschle would have been the best person for the Health and Human Services job, as well as a post as White House health czar. One senior official said Daschle had taken himself out of the mix only because he realized he could no longer effectively do the job.
And Gibbs said Obama had not explicitly enumerated any new ethics standards for his staff, despite two recent departures of nominees.
"The president doesn't need to write his staff a memo," Gibbs said. "We understand."
Asked how the staff can understand something Obama has not made explicit, Gibbs replied, presumably tongue-in-cheek: "clairvoyance."