On Nov. 4, Cornell’s campus was buzzing with energetic students pledging support for President Barack Obama’s message of change and transparency in government. Now, after only a month in office, many of these students are noticing some cracks in those maxims as controversies develop around nominees for cabinet and regulatory positions in his administration.
Since his victory in November, four of Obama’s appointees withdrew their names from consideration. One appointee dealt with intense controversy prior to his nomination and countless more are being held up in the confirmation process mainly by Republicans — a serious blow to the bipartisan theme of his campaign.
The troubles began on Jan. 6, when Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), Obama’s choice for commerce secretary, removed himself from consideration due to a grand jury investigation into a pay-to-play scheme for state contracts. On Feb. 3, Richardson was joined by former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle — the nominee to head the department of Health and Human Services — and the former treasury official Nancy Killefer — slated to serve as the first chief performance officer, a position created to reform the federal budget. Both removed their names from consideration amidst allegations of tax evasion and accepting corporate gifts.
The final exit occurred last Thursday, when Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who accepted the nomination vacated by Richardson, withdrew his name over policy disagreements with the administration. In addition, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner was discovered to have also owed significant amounts to the IRS — an organization he oversees in his newly appointed position — which greatly delayed his nomination.
The bipartisan message was further hurt as Republicans attempted to block the appointments of nominees for environmental positions, including Cornell alum Nancy Sutley ’84. Sutley, the former deputy mayor of Los Angeles, was confirmed on Jan. 22 as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality after some conflict over a prior nominee’s record.
Many see these snags in the process as evidence of the inexperience so belabored during the campaign.
“The administration could have avoided the issues with Daschle and Richardson, had they taken the proper precautions in the vetting process,” said Prof. Richard Bensel Ph.D. ’78, associate chair of the government department. “Combined with their faith in the bipartisan motivation of Gregg, the investigations and moral slips greatly emphasize the administration’s lack of acquaintance with the machinations of Washington.”
One of the major troubles for the administration is that each major controversy involved some sort of monetary or fiscal scheme, which shed doubt onto these nominees’ credentials to serve as a major public official in times of economic crisis. On Tuesday, Obama signed into law the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. As Secretary of the Treasury, Geithner is vital for controlling and enacting the stimulus, which includes massive provisions for higher education, infrastructural improvements and research into alternative energy.
“Each of these instances hurt the credibility of the administration, lowering the people’s confidence in their competence, in their ability to fix the economic crisis — a crisis that very few people, if any, understand,” Bensel said. “Without confidence in Geithner, there is no real way for a restoration of confidence in either the stimulus or the economy. It is a credibility they will have trouble reasserting.”
Around campus, there is some general disagreement over what effect these situations will have on the credibility of Obama’s message.
“The withdrawal of Gregg is really not going to help Obama in the future. The irreconcilable difference between their philosophies will only serve to hurt Obama’s transcendent brand,” said Joe Teirab ’09, executive director of the College Republicans. “Furthermore, the conflict between the so called ‘tax and spend’ mentality of the Democrats and Daschle’s avoidance of taxes will only serve to fortify the Republican position and reassert their power.”
“The Daschle controversy really won’t hurt Obama that much, since he admits he screwed up in not asking the right question,” said Terry Moynihan ’11, director of public relations for the Cornell Democrats. “As far as Judd Gregg is concerned, I believe the country is worse off for his actions. By approaching the administration, claiming he could get beyond partisan differences and then pulling out, he set a bad tone for future bipartisan cooperation.”
The point that seems to generate consensus is the overarching importance of the economic recovery.
“If you ask most Americans what they care about, it’s not who is serving in which cabinet position, but rather who can actually produce results in this time of overwhelming uncertainty,” Bensel said. “If Geithner could solve the economic crisis, people would immediately stop caring about which taxes he had or had not paid.”
As the situation continues to unfold and the still vacant positions within the administration are filled, both sides agree that the Obama administration will need to learn from their early mistakes, appointing cabinet members who can serve well in the current economic situation.