Obama: “I Screwed Up”

Note to Tom Daschle: Don’t take these blog posts so seriously. Good grief. I was only half serious yesterday when I agreed with Eugene Robinson that the Wizards of Wall Street could face citizens armed with pitchforks and torches. Let’s face it. Most people can’t afford to buy a pitchfork or torch these days. Wonder if those industries are covered by TARP? And it’s hard to assemble a decent mob in the dead of winter. Unless it’s in SixBurgh as the Steeler Nation celebrated another Super Bowl yesterday.

So, did Daschle do “the right thing” by withdrawing his nomination to become Health Czar? Nah. He did the only thing he could do under the circumstances. I really believed as of early yesterday morning that he could tough it out. But as it turns out, his Senate chums, apparently, weren’t too thrilled at the prospect of having to defend him. Maybe they saw him as the Ghost of Confirmations Future. So it goes. By the way, Daschle doesn’t qualify for the celebratory “swearing out” ceremony — since he was never sworn in.

And then we get to President Obama. I don’t agree with all his proposals — particularly with the stimulus package that is meandering through Congress. Too many pigs lining up at the trough. See, I told you I was pretty conservative on most issues. But unlike Rush and many conservatives, I don’t want Obama to fail. As a nation, we can’t afford for Obama to fail. And there is one issue that I agree with the Prez on totally. It’s the call for an era of responsibility. We have to restore trust and confidence. That starts with personal responsibility, ethical conduct and civic morality.

Admittedly, we’re not off to a very good start. So Obama went on all the TV networks and said: “I screwed up.” The point: You can’t restore responsibility if there are two sets of standards. One for those at the top of the food chain. And one for everyone else.

Still, I don’t believe Obama screwed up by nominating Daschle and the others who are apparently equally tax-challenged. Yeah, I have some reservations about a guy who can leave the Senate and then make millions as an advisor or whatever on K Street. But that’s how Washington works — for good or bad.

But the point is that this country has changed — in many ways because George Bush could never admit that he screwed up. People on Main Street get this: lost jobs, lost homes, lost retirement and college savings and so on. Yet many on Wall Street and those Inside the Beltway are still playing the game by their own rules. Here’s from Steven Pearlstein, in The Washington Post online, “Stumbling on Their Sense of Entitlement.”

Tom Daschle still doesn’t get it.

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.

Where Obama screwed up is that he should have demanded that Daschle remove himself from consideration. And the Prez should have done it quickly — and very publicly. Then his message wouldn’t have been — oops, I made a mistake. It would have been — I mean what I say about responsibility and integrity. Big difference.

And today Obama and team are going to send a message to the Corporate Chiefs and the Wizards of Wall Street and give them a salary haircut. Reports indicate that executive compensation at firms receiving bailout money will be limited to $500,000. It’s symbolic — but speaks to the anger and frustration of people throughout the country. So from that standpoint at least it’s worth a shot.

Also, the timing is about right. Proxy statements that disclose executive compensation are about the arrive — in conjunction with quarterly 401(K) and other savings statements. Pitchforks and torches, anyone?

But wouldn’t it have been better if the chiefs had acted responsibly — and trimmed their own salary? Not just bonuses. That’s the low-hanging fruit. Nobody can justify (except those on the receiving end?) those payments. I’m talking about the multimillion-dollar salaries people are getting at a time when they have bankrupted their own firms — and the world’s economy. I know. Cutting pay voluntarily will happen when pigs fly. Just like in economic stimulus plans. I digress.

And note to Obama: When you cut the pay to $500,000, make sure someone keeps an eye on noncash compensation. Corporate compensation experts — and Boards of Directors — are masters at getting around rules and regulations involving pay and disclosure. When you have a minute, just take a good look at the proxy statements.

So it goes.


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