Is the Administration Winging It?
ALG Editor's Note: In the following featured commentary from the Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove explains how Barack Obama and his cabinet's bumbling and careless ethical slipups could very well spell the downfall of his administration.
By Karl Rove
February 18, 2009
Team Obama demonstrated remarkable discipline during the presidential campaign. From raising an unprecedented amount of money to milking every advantage from the Internet to grabbing lots of delegates from inexpensive caucus states, they left nothing to chance.
And now the administration has scored a major legislative victory in an extraordinarily short period of time. Less than 700 hours after taking the oath of office, President Barack Obama signed the largest spending bill in American history.Nevertheless, this fast start can't overcome a growing sense the administration is winging it on issues large and small.
Take the vetting of cabinet nominees. Mr. Obama's aides ignored a federal investigation of New Mexico's Gov. Bill Richardson that started last August for a possible pay-for-play scandal. Mr. Richardson had to withdraw after being named to become secretary of commerce.
The administration treated as inconsequential the failure of its choices for Treasury secretary and White House performance officer, as well as its labor secretary-designate's spouse, to pay taxes. It failed to uncover Tom Daschle's problems with more than $102,943 in previously unpaid taxes, penalties and interest -- and once it did, aides assumed Mr. Daschle would be given a pass.
Team Obama promised Gen. Anthony Zinni he'd be ambassador to Iraq, then cut him loose without explanation. After the Bill Richardson fiasco, it romanced Republican Sen. Judd Gregg for commerce secretary -- then ignored his advice on the stimulus and wouldn't trust him with running the department, moving supervision of the Census into the White House. Mr. Gregg withdrew himself from consideration.
Then there is the stimulus itself. Mr. Obama's economic team met with congressional leaders in December to green light a bill costing up to $850 billion. But they described less than $200 billion of what they wanted in the envelope. In return for outsourcing the bill's drafting to Congress, the administration took on two responsibilities: running polls to advise Hill Democrats on how to sharpen their marketing, and putting the president on the road to sell a bill others wrote.
Team Obama was winging it when it declared the stimulus would "save or create" 2.5 million, then three million, then 3.7 million, and then four million new jobs. These were arbitrary and erratic numbers, and they knew there's no way to count "saved" jobs. Americans, being commonsensical, will focus on Mr. Obama's promise to "create" jobs. It's highly unlikely that more than 180,000 jobs will be created each month by the end of next year. The precise, state-by-state job numbers the administration used to sell the stimulus are likely to come back to haunt them as well.
Bipartisanship? The administration failed even to respond to GOP offers to endorse an Obama campaign proposal to suspend capital gains taxes for new small businesses. Inexplicably, the president, in a prime-time press conference, raised expectations for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's bank rescue plan, which turned out the next day to be no plan at all. The markets craved details; they got none. When markets cratered, spokesmen didn't acknowledge the administration's poor planning, but blamed the markets.
Team Obama was also winging it on enhanced interrogation of terrorists. First it nullified all the Bush administration's legal authorities before considering what rules it should have in place. When the CIA briefed White House officials on the results obtained from these techniques, the administration backtracked and organized a four-month study of what rules were appropriate.
Something similar happened with the promise to close Guantanamo Bay within a year: The administration has no idea what it will do with the violent terrorists detained there. And on ethics, Mr. Obama proclaimed an end to lobbyist influence in government -- even as he was nominating lobbyists for major posts and filling White House ranks with former lobbyists.
Team Obama has been living off its campaign reputation for planning and execution. That reputation is now frayed, and all the bumbling and unforced errors will have an impact. Such things don't go unnoticed on Capitol Hill or in foreign capitals.
The president, a bright and skilled politician, has plenty of time to recover. The danger is that what we have seen is not an aberration, but the early indications of his governing style. Barack Obama won the job he craved, now he must demonstrate that he and his team are up to its requirements. The signs are worrisome. The world is a dangerous place. The days of winging it need to end.
Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.