Obama must hold himself to a higher standard

The Baltimore Sun

"I screwed up."

President Barack Obama, Feb. 3

Wait a minute. He said that? There were cameras and microphones? Somebody caught it on tape?

Presidents don't say that. Bill Clinton never said that. George W. Bush would have cut off his tongue with rusty gardening shears before he said that. But you're telling me Barack Obama said it? Oh, my stars and garters. The times, they are a-changin'.

As a reader told me, "I was almost unnerved by how refreshing it was to have a president openly make, correct and admit a mistake. What unnerved me is that I almost didn't care what the mistake was."

For the record, the mistake had to do with Mr. Obama undermining his own ethical standards by nominating former Sen. Tom Daschle as secretary of health and human services and standing by him even after it was revealed he had neglected to pay more than $128,000 in federal taxes. Mr. Daschle withdrew his name from consideration the same day Mr. Obama 'fessed up.

Two hours later, would-be chief White House performance officer Nancy Killefer also packed it in because she, too, was tainted by tax troubles. All this after Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's nomination was nearly swamped by the revelation that he owed $34,000 in back taxes. And let us not forget the administration asking for and receiving a waiver of its own ethics rules restricting lobbyists so that William J. Lynn III, a former lobbyist for Raytheon, could be installed as deputy secretary of defense.

Taken together, it adds up to a worrisome pattern for an administration that campaigned on a vow to reform Washington's ethics. As Mr. Obama put it in one of the interviews, "It's important for this administration to send a message that there aren't two sets of rules."

Yes, every president arrives in Washington with a promise to drain the swamp. And every president eventually finds the swamp draining him.

Inevitably, there comes a moment when the soap bubbles of campaigning meet the hard macadam of governing. The soap bubbles break, lofty promises and best intentions giving way before pragmatism and the need to get things done. It will happen for Mr. Obama, too. But the president must be more thoughtful than he has been in choosing when and how those moments come. Do it for health care, perhaps. Do it for the economy. But for Tom Daschle and William Lynn? No.

Like it or not, the rules are different for this president.

Don't believe me? Take a spin around town. Pick up a piece of chocolate sculpted in Mr. Obama's likeness at the candy store. Buy a copy of Spider-Man with Mr. Obama on the cover at the comic book shop. Pick up one of the dozens of Obama books at the bookstore. Stand among the people clad in Obama T-shirts and hoodies at the bus stop.

When is the last time you saw a president so ... beloved? This is the source of Mr. Obama's great political power. It is also his political kryptonite.

Not to mix superhero metaphors, but as Mr. Obama's friend Spider-Man could tell him, with great power comes great responsibility. Barack Obama is seen as something new. The worst thing he could do is to act like something old - a politician cutting corners and talking from both sides of his mouth. Should that happen, the heights of the nation's adulation will be mirrored in the depths of its scorn. So he must be what he said he was.

Last week's moment of sparkling candor was a timely reminder, then, of the traits that are supposed to make this president different. Some of us needed that reminder. Maybe he did, too.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears regularly in The

Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@


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