Fat City

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009; 7:51 AM

This is a city in which people turn modest-paying government jobs into lucrative careers selling their influence on behalf of corporate interests.

A city in which prosecutors become defense lawyers, Pentagon officials become defense contractors, lawmakers become trade association chiefs, securities overseers decamp for Wall Street and environmental regulators sign on with polluters.

A city in which people come to do good and stay to do well.

A city where, at any moment, limousines are ferrying around self-important ex-officials who are still called "Senator," "Congressman" and "Mr. Secretary" even as they seek special favors for moneyed clients.

That is the culture that Barack Obama promised to change. And that, beyond the details of Tom Daschle's withdrawal, is where he stumbled.

Too many Beltway journalists have become inured to the District's cashing-in culture, but people out there get it, and the new president has admitted that he, not to put too fine a point on it, screwed up. "I think that, look, ultimately, I campaigned on changing Washington and bottom-up politics," he told CNN. "And 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."

There's been a bit of an unseemly rush on the right to declare the Obama presidency a failure. A year from now, if a big economic package has passed and jobs are being created, Daschle's back taxes for a car and driver will seem like a mere footnote. But Obama's stumble could also wind up being viewed as the moment his idealistic rhetoric was trumped by grubby reality, and the air began to leak from his balloon of hope.

In fairness, the new president has imposed stricter rules--no one who works for him can lobby his administration while he remains in office--than any previous White House. But he also had to show that his top honchos wouldn't get a pass for not paying their taxes, especially when they are viewed as a symbol of the city's get-rich-quick culture.

You know you've messed up when Maureen Dowd writes, "It took Daschle's resignation to shake the president out of his arrogant attitude that his charmed circle doesn't have to abide by the lofty standards he lectured the rest of us about for two years." And when she denigrates your stimulus measure this way: "Mr. Obama should have taken a red pencil to the $819 billion stimulus bill and slashed all the provisions that looked like caricatures of Democratic drunken-sailor spending."

In the New Republic, Norm Ornstein opines on Washington's legal-but-sleazy ethos:

"Jack Abramoff and his colleagues showed that corruption can be painfully blatant. But often a more subtle dynamic is present: congressional staffers, members of Congress, and executive officials answer the phone calls and see the unsavory clients of lobbyists who enjoy prime tickets to Redskins games and golf at Burning Tree or might at some future point be their employers--who wants to alienate someone who might hold the key to a million-dollar job? Laws and regulations get more complicated when drafted by staffers and agency officials who know their market value is much higher when they are the ones who can interpret the nuances or find the loopholes when they leave government service.

"Many of these lobbyists and consultants are my friends; most are very honorable people, but all--including Tom Daschle, a man of real integrity and strong basic values--are caught up in a system that is becoming more difficult to keep on the straight and narrow."

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