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Stumbling on Their Sense of Entitlement

John Thain spent $1.2 million to redecorate his office.
John Thain spent $1.2 million to redecorate his office. (Bebeto Matthews - AP)
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Wednesday, February 4, 2009; Page D01

Tom Daschle still doesn't get it.

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John Thain never did.

Barack Obama gets it sometimes, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner not so much.

Corporate executives think they get it but aren't even close.

College presidents, governors and union leaders, for the most part, don't have a clue.

"It" is an understanding of how fundamentally the political and economic environment has been transformed with the bursting of the bubble economy and how that has jeopardized basic assumptions and expectations and the way we do what we do.

Tom Daschle's problem wasn't that he didn't pay his taxes. It was that he -- along with those who vetted his nomination as health and human services secretary and many of his colleagues in the Senate -- found it perfectly ordinary and acceptable that he would be able to cash in on his time in the Senate by earning more than $5 million over two years as a law-firm rainmaker, equity fundraiser, corporate director and luncheon speaker, all the while being driven around town in a chauffeured town car. Not exactly Cincinnatus returning to the plow.

For the American public, Daschle became the latest symbol of everything that is wrong with Washington -- the influence-peddling and corner-cutting and sacrifice of the public good to private interest. Now that this system has let them down, and left them poorer and anxious about the future, people are angry about it and no longer willing to accept the corruption of the public process and the whole notion of public service.

The irony, of course, is that Barack Obama understood all this and tapped into Americans' frustration as the central message of his "change" campaign. But even he, with only four years in Washington, failed to see the depth of the problem or anticipate the ferocity of the backlash.

Obama's first mistake was to hand the keys of the transition office over to a crew made up almost exclusively of Washington insiders who -- surprise! -- have largely succeeded in restoring to power their friends from the Clinton administration. Worse still, he has fallen for the tired old Washington "wisdom" that the only way to get anything done is to concentrate even more power in an ever larger White House full of czars and councils and chiefs of staff who ostensibly are there to "coordinate" policy but invariably wind up making it, sapping the departments and agencies of whatever importance and energy and creativity they have left.

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, congressional leaders, while nodding in the direction of bipartisan cooperation, have also stuck largely to business as usual. It's hard to know who is to blame more for the party-line vote in the House on a desperately needed economic stimulus bill -- the Republicans who cling to stale ideology and spout economic nonsense or the Democrats who shut them out of the drafting process, never bothered to articulate a compelling rationale and lost a golden opportunity to reform the programs as they were expanding them.

Not that the private sector has done any better.


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