I wish people would stop telling me to be relieved that President Obama is not President Bush. I detested President Bush, and I detested him from the moment he arrived on the national scene, from the way he ran his campaign which led us to the debacle of an election stolen in Florida (decided by 547 votes in the state George's brother was then Governor; and a long-time Bush supporter designed a confusing ballot and refused to go through the sort of recount that Al Franken is now having to endure); a campaign filled with bait and switch promises (viz: local control over schools, only to be followed by the No Child Left Behind Act: one of the greatest federal government takeovers of local affairs in recent memory.) But these bad-faith measures were just the prelude to an administration that pursued an agenda of putting the President and the executive branch above the law: George W. Bush personally committed war crimes, had his administration engage in illegal surveillance of American citizens, directed his Justice department to come up with justifications for U.S. violations of international law, tolerated or encouraged a host of troubling cronyistic contacts and relationships between his vice-president and members of the energy industries, tolerated or encouraged his justice department to go after government lawyers for their political positions, encouraged the expansion of executive privilege to cover the the office of the vice-president in unprecedented ways, and used various suspect methods (e.g. substituting executive regulation for legislation) to flout the separation of powers and checks and balances built in to the structure of the U.S. Constitution. George W. Bush was shady and underhanded, rivaled in recent times only by Richard M. Nixon, who was literally a crook.
I have no idea whether Barack H. Obama will turn out to be more or less unscrupulous than George W. Bush, more or less interested in the rule of law, and the place of the executive branch in American constitutional democracy. But less than a month into the new administration and, sure, I'm relieved that Obama isn't Bush, but I am not at all persuaded that he is going to be qualitatively more honest, in better faith, and more sensitive to the ideal of a government of laws rather than persons.
Coming into his presidency, Barack H. Obama showed a willingness to bend rules to gain office, and not just when he accepted 20 delegates from a state in which he never even ran, but going all the way back to Chicago. ("As a community organizer, he had helped register thousands of voters. But when it came time to run for office, he employed Chicago rules to invalidate the voting petition signatures of three of his challengers." (source)) So far, his vetting failed to catch problems with at least three high level appointments (Bill Richardson, Tim Geithner, Tom Daschle) and even when ethical concerns have arisen about others (Jon Favreau) he's done nothing.
Obama's treatment of Geithner and Daschle particularly distresses me. Both are sophisticated, well-educated people, people who know when to get tax advice, people who understand the distinction between legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion and presumably how to work with an accountant to make sure that they are erring, if err they must, on the side of an abundance of law-abidingness. Both have had held fiscal policy-making positions. Each was found to have broken the tax laws. The Geithner strategy - apologize, act contrite, claim embarrassment, apologize some more - is now being used by Daschle (go here for a round-up of media reaction), who we are assured has not only the solid backing of Senate Democrats but enjoys President Obama's absolute support, as of today, Monday, February 2.
Now, I am happy to remark that the Obama administration has taken steps to bring the U.S. more in line with international law. But President Obama's consistent support for would-be office-holders who engage in inappropriate, unethical, illegal conduct does not bode well for those of us who really did want a different kind of politics in this country. I simply do not believe that there is nobody else who could head the Department of Health and Human Services other than somebody who evaded paying over $100,000 in taxes.
Oh, and yes, I do think there is a double standard at work here. Secretary of State Clinton was incredibly wise and politically adept to start early in working out disclosure arrangements regarding President Clinton's Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative. But note: she anticipated the problems and questions and dealt with them beforehand, knowing that the boys' club was unlikely to close ranks around her had she not handled the issues forthrightly and adroitly. Meanwhile, for Daschle and Geithner the treatment is like that of small boys caught with their hand in the cookie jar: the men of Washington - and note the it is the men of the Senate, especially Harry Reid, and the man who is President, Barack Obama - who are quick to say of Geithner and Daschle the equivalent of "boys will be boys": these guys are good guys. Yes, tax evasion is bad (Reid and Obama cannot seem to quite bring themselves to say "illegal") but as long as Geithner and Daschle know how to act contrite and express embarrassment, they really ought to get the jobs they want. But this is no way to create a sense of respect for the rule of law, that respect that George W. Bush never displayed. To restore respect is a tough task and it requires demonstrating little tolerance for those who break laws directly relevant to the responsibilities of the offices they seek.