Obama’s broken promises

Barack Obama promised a "clean break from business as usual" in Washington. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

From the start, he made exceptions to his no-lobbyist rule. And now, embarrassing details about Cabinet-nominee Tom Daschle’s tax problems and big paychecks from special interest groups are raising new questions about the reach and sweep of the new president’s promised reforms.

Maybe he shouldn’t have promised so much, some open-government advocates say. They’re willing to cut him some slack — for now.

On Jan. 21, the day after his inauguration, Obama issued an executive order barring any former lobbyists who join his administration from dealing with matters or agencies related to their lobbying work. Nor could they join agencies they had lobbied in the previous two years.

However, William J. Lynn III, his choice to become the No. 2 official at the Defense Department, recently lobbied for military contractor Raytheon. And William Corr, tapped as deputy secretary at Health and Human Services, lobbied through most of last year as an anti-tobacco advocate. Corr says he will take no part in tobacco matters in the new administration.

"Even the toughest rules require reasonable exceptions," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

That was a big step back from Obama’s unambiguous swipe at lobbyists in November 2007, while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. "I don’t take a dime of their money," he said, "and when I am president, they won’t find a job in my White House."

The waivers granted for Lynn and Corr caused some in Washington to wince. But others, including many longtime advocates of tougher ethical standards, suggest it all says as much about deeply ingrained practices — and even necessities — in Washington as about a new president.

"Sometimes you can over-promise," said former Sen. Warren Rudman, a Republican from New Hampshire.

"This government is very complicated," he said. "Often you’ll need people with a lot of experience in certain areas," and current or former lobbyists sometimes fit that bill best.

"It was probably a mistake to come down so hard on lobbyists," said Melanie Sloan, who is not shy about criticizing lobbyists or politicians as executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "I think the Obama folks’ intentions were great here," she said. "But sometimes you realize you can’t actually govern on just what you campaigned on."

Sloan and others said embarrassments over Daschle, one of several top Obama appointees with a history of influencing government for clients, should not detract from the president’s first-day vow to sharply limit the role of lobbyists in his administration.

Daschle, a former senator tapped to head Health and Human Services, is not technically a lobbyist. But he was paid more than $5.2 million over the past two years as he advised health insurers and hospitals and worked in other industries such as energy and telecommunications.

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy21 is one of Washington’s best-known advocates of more open and honest government. He called Obama’s executive order "unprecedented and almost revolutionary in nature" and "a direct attack on the culture of Washington and the way business is done here."

"A few waivers will not undermine it," he said, provided they are justified and limited.

The best way to limit the influence of wealthy special interests, Wertheimer said, is to increase public funding for presidential elections and restrict the amount that private business can pump into campaigns and politics. That could pave the way for tighter restrictions on influence-peddling in Congress, he said.

Obama declined public financing for his campaign so he could raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on his own. Some people saw that a virtual death knell for campaign public financing, but Wertheimer said he believes Obama will deliver on aides’ promises to help "repair the system."

Daschle, the former Senate majority leader from South Dakota, strikes many in Washington as a good example of why the revolving door between government and highly paid private-sector jobs can be troubling, but also why an outright ban on such movements would be unwise.

Even Republicans praised Daschle’s cerebral, soft-spoken approach to government and politics, and his expertise on subjects including health care. He didn’t choose to leave Congress for a high-paying job, but was defeated in a close re-election bid in 2004.

Once out, he was attractive and valuable to all sorts of government-regulated industries, even if he never registered as a lobbyist who could make straightforward appeals for or against legislation affecting his clients.

He received more than $2 million over two years as a senior policy adviser for the Washington law firm Alston & Bird. He also earned more than $2 million in consulting fees from InterMedia Advisors LLC of New York, an investment firm specializing in buyouts and industry consolidation. An associate let Daschle use his car and driver, for which Daschle had to pay late taxes and interest.

Several health groups also paid Daschle $15,000 or more to speak to their gatherings.

"He welcomed every opportunity to make his case to the American public at large, and the health industry in particular, that America can’t afford to ignore the health care crisis any longer," said his spokeswoman Jenny Backus.

Wertheimer, of Democracy21, said that rather than dwell on Daschle’s problems or the Corr and Lynn waivers, he focuses on Obama’s executive order and the hope of progress to come on public financing of campaigns.

The executive order "laid down a mark," Wertheimer said. "More has to be done, and tough battles have to be won."


Associated Press writer Julie Pace contributed to this report.


  1. spartacus

    I will submit that it is very different to lobby for reform in industries, as former Senator Daschle did, than to lobby on behalf of those who abused for those industries, as did the appointees of previous administrations, particularly of the last (which were especially heinous). Obama’s appointees are at least in keeping with the notion of cleaning up the departments and therefore the industries he is having them oversee.

    As for Tom Daschle, while not paying taxes for the driver is bad, it is understandable to some degree. It’s plausible that he thought the person who gave him the driver was paying the salary. If he didn’t have the 1099 form, that seems more than likely. He has an accountant do his taxes, after all: he probably only looked at them and signed them, not realizing the driver should’ve been there. Bad, yes. Hanging bad, no. To be up in arms, especially if you are a Republican lawmaker, about such things considering the Cabinet Bush was able to put together: people who not only gamed the system, but abused it in a way that abused the departments they were in charge of overseeing, is the height of hipocracy. At least in Daschle’s case we have someone who is qualified to bring about the change the President wants in our healthcare system, and the change the people of this country voted for.

  2. Epictetus

    People misunderstand the connection between personal virtue and political action. Virtuous people can instigate misbegotten policies, and imperfect people can bring about reforms.

    Let’s give the president the benefit of the doubt and see how Daschle performs.


  3. jzelensk

    Time for Daschle to withdraw his name. There are many extremely capable individuals who can carry this portion of Obama’s agenda forward.

    I have some sympathy for Daschle’s situation, going all the way back to the GOP war to unseat him from the Senate. But saving him for this cabinet post is not worth the cost, which would be to reduce Obama’s effectiveness.


  4. AustinRanter

    Nobody in Washington has a clean nose.

    The problems this nation faces are complex. I don’t believe that anybody expects President Obama to wiggle his nose and make the world a utopia.

    I do believe that he’ll take some heat over the next few months if he drifts away from core promises that reflect his campaign stand on changing “business as usual” or what some deem “old school” in Washington. It’s a perceptional, or subjective view of what the collective majority of the voters believes that “change means” that will be the challenge for the new President.

    But, the reality is that it took Washington only 250 years to really damage its image, as well as how it operates. If it’s even repairable…it’ll take some time.

    What a hell of a mess we have going on. I couldn’t pick a person who I believe has the power to overcome all of the problems that Obama has on his plate. But, he’s young and smart. But the question is…just how smart? He’s going to look like he’s 80 before the end of the first 100 days in office.

  5. remoran

    “Never stop questioning.” Einstein

    I hope Obama’s not like Herman Melville’s Confidence Man but I am having serious doubts about him, especially in the economic side of things. We are sliding into an abyss and his financial advisors are the same guys who created this disaster in the first place. I hope I am wrong but right now it seems he’s being told what to do by the real powers of the world, the bankers who run the Fed and the US monetary system, a situation that’s very sad to see as Obama has the intellectual gifts to be a great president, something we desperately need in these uncertain times.

  6. Elmo

    Get Real! I wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to find out that someone else has tax issues and lately it seems like I’m the only person in the world who actually makes estimated tax payments every quarter based on my total YTD income.

  7. Ardie

    It looks like our little Republican friends require a great deal of virtue and coherence from their adversaries (i.e., President Obama) while at the same time granting generous dispensations to their own scoundrels — and past scoundrels (Nixon, Reagan, the Bushies).

  8. AustinRanter

    To repeat myself from my posting in “Obama aint walking the walk”.

    After giving all of this mess (market crash, new president, etc) some thought. I’ve been throwing rocks at our new president like a lot of folks…but the reality is…we have a new president who sure as hell does not share the same type of character as the previous president.

    Despite the rough start…and it’s been a killer start for a new president…no matter who that person might have been…maybe we would better serve the situation by helping him along. Maybe we need to continue (and if you haven’t started then do so) to write to our Congressional members and raise 9 kinds of hell with these folks and offer them two choices…

    1) Let go of your allegiance with the special interest “now” and do your constitutional job, which includes protecting the general welfare of our nation…or we’ll fire your ass.
    2) Repeat number one.

    Our new president has more on his plate than probably any other new president since Roosevelt and Truman (having to make the decision to kill about 125,000 people by nuking them). In some ways…maybe the situation is more profound today than in the past.

    At this point in time…it’s just too damn late to be cry-babying about Obama…and who he’s chosen for his Cab…and so on. There is too many more important things for us all to deal with.

    You know…we’re all just damn powerless over people, places, and things for the most part. So, maybe it’s time we try…despite our grievances…to support the new guy. I need to stop bitching and start writing more letters to those who are hired to work for us all. I’m way so more concerned about the Corp-Congress than Obama.

    My Congressional representatives (their staff) hate like hell getting letters from me. enough is enough. Could it just be possible that we step and in time and remember Kennedy’s saying. “Ask NOT what our country can do for us!” We are in a sh**storm mess.

  9. Ardie

    Babington, the depth of your condemnation of Obama strikes me as a lot of Republican angst trying to turn something into what it ain’t. I have lived through Republican scoundrels like Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the Bush crime syndicate. Obama is not in their league. Maybe you should turn off Rush Limbaugh for a while and try Zen meditation.

  10. AustinRanter

    Hey Ardie…long time no see. I agree with you.

    I see that America has turned into a nation of victims. The mess in our country is absurd, to say the least. But what’s even more absurd is that We The People have somehow turned into a bunch of…hmmm, for a lack of a more vicious term…victim-losers.

    Studity is running amuck. We just can’t help ourselves.