Slate chief political correspondent John Dickerson was online at Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about the withdrawal of health secretary nominee Tom Daschle and the tax problems of Obama's other nominees. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
John Dickerson: Hello everyone. I'm happy to be here and look forward to your questions.
Boise, Idaho: Richardson. Geithner. The performance officer. Now Daschle. Too late for what should HAVE been done. Geithner has to go. Obama went from an A, to a B, to a C, then a D. He can get back to a B if Geithner resigns.
Kurtz says in this morning's paper that they think we don't have an attention span. That's David Brooks' contention, too. Maybe Republicans don't, but some Democrats do.
Geithner must resign.
washingtonpost.com: Howard Kurtz: Daschle's Demise(Post, Feb. 4)
John Dickerson: Interesting notion. I think Geithner won't resign but I think they are realizing the toll this has taken and that Daschle's departure doesn't solve the problem the White House has with people who feel let down by this special dealing.
And thanks for watching Washington Week!
Silver Spring, Md.: My question is actually about Nancy Killefer. Her tax debt was only about $950. Her position did not require Senate confirmation. Did she pull out voluntarily or was she "encouraged" to leave for appearances sake?
I wonder because I think she could have made a reasonable case that her debt was paid and handled years ago and that it was already reported in the press weeks ago.
John Dickerson: They knew about Killefer's tax problems and thought they could make it through—but that was before Geithner and Daschle. I don't have this reporting, but one of the papers reported today that the White House figured they couldn't handle another tax problem and so she had to resign.
Salt Lake City: I want to see universal health care more than the next guy, but why was Daschle the poster-child for this? Just because of connections?
John Dickerson: Daschle knew the issue and he knew the players from his long experience in Washington. Plus, he and Obama got along very well.
Richmond, Va.: I am glad Slate and WP have linked up. It's a good combo!
I realize there are contemporary perceptions about Republicans (real or exaggerated). They are perceived to be big money, desiring de-regulation for the sake of big profits to a few, etc. (Enron, Halliburton, etc...) Does the current Daschle controversy give legs to the perception that Democrats want OTHER big money people to pay taxes...BUT...not them?
John Dickerson: It certainly contributes to that. Remember Joe Biden said that paying your taxes is patriotic.
San Francisco: Thank you for the great article. Openness does seem a no-brainer to encourage empathy and forgiveness for mistakes. (Who finds our tax code always easy to decipher?) I understand why Sen. Daschle needed to withdraw from consideration, but as a physician who believes our system desperately needs reform, I also worry we've lost a unique leader. Which compromise is better? Ideals or acumen? What about the ideals driving efforts to reform health care? Are they lesser than immediate transparency concerns? I'd be grateful for your comments.
John Dickerson: It's an important balance and a good question. I think in the political context where you're talking about fairness the idea that someone got a special deal because of their inside access undermines the "we're all in this together so lets sacrifice equally" pitch. People think the rich and the well connected get to play by different rules and that hurts the legislative process.
Anonymous: Should an influential government employee like a Sen. Daschle, who sold his influences to private companies, be allowed to come back into government? Who would or could keep him ethical?
John Dickerson: It seems to me the right answer is to set limits and be transparent. A president can make the case that a person is crucial to a project despite their mistakes but he has to make that case and spend that capital. If you do it up front I think you have a chance. When you're reacting to something as Obama and his White House were in this case, it's harder.
La Canada-Flintridge, Calif.: The problem rests in poor screening prior to selection. If the tax problem had been picked up earlier, the rest of it would not have happened.
John Dickerson: They did pick it up in screening. The White House just thought Daschle's other qualifications would get him through.
Dallas: Do you suspect that there is a possibility that President's Obama openness agenda may unintentionally hamper his efforts to effectively govern and execute his policies or do you think all this folderol will cause the administration to quietly abandon the policy of Open Government?
John Dickerson: I don't think obama can abandon it. It was the central message of his campaign: change. Abandoning it would make the central message of his presidency: fraud. Not a word a president wants. And there's the fact that Obama really does believe this stuff about openness. He might have made a mistake here, as he admits, but it's a goal he's trying to get to.
Silicon Valley, Calif.: We should have elected Hillary. She and Bill would never have let something like this happen. Experience matters.
We all wanted change and the Democratic Party's agenda, but failed to realize that the person at the top makes a huge difference. I still believe in and support President Obama but I'm extremely upset about him appointing so many Republicans and about him letting Tom Daschle twist in the wind.
Dashle made an honest mistake. Everybody who has a busy life depends on their accountant to do their taxes. Daschle's accountant screwed up. Every CPA I've talked to about this agrees.
It doesn't matter, though, because Republicans will keep running the show because Democrats never stand up to them. None of this would have happened if Hillary was in charge.
Sometimes, you just have to fight for what you believe in. Democrats need to learn how to fight and how to win when Republicans stir up tempests in teapots. You have to defeat an enemy first before you can turn them into a friend. Republicans view Democrats as "the enemy." Democrats would be wise to view Republicans the same way.
John Dickerson: This may all be true but this wasn't a Republican v. Democrat thing. It was people on obama's side who thought Daschle was a pick that didn't live up to Obama's own standards. In the end, Obama seems to say that's what he believes too.
Grand Rapids, Mich.: I don't believe there are any saints walking around this earth. Therefore, your transparency argument regarding Sen. Daschle begs the following question: how do you effectively involve the public (i.e. without the feeding frenzy you discuss) in deciding which ethical lapses of any candidate for public office or appointment are disqualifying? (For example, Captain Sullenberger's failure to return his library book on time would not be a disqualifier in public opinion. On second thought, perhaps he is the one saint among us...)
As a political matter, has President Obama addressed this question?
John Dickerson: I think the middle ground is that a president is up front about these problems and makes his case for why they shouldn't be disqualifying.
Chicago: It is obvious that Obama is trying to reach back for some old-timers who can help bridge the partisan gap, like Biden.
On the other side of this is that most if not all old pols are tainted in some way and certainly do not represent "change".
I would rather see young, more idealistic people getting on his ship. If Obama is to make his regime transparent and make "change" one of his priorities, and not have business as usual in Washington, what do you suggest that he do to bridge the wide partisan gap?
John Dickerson: It's tricky. I'm not sure he has to only hire people with no experience. I just think he has to be up front about it to save himself the headaches that come when people realize that his candidates for these posts have problems. If he's up front people might not judge his motives and he'll be able to make the case for their merits.
Upper Marlboro, Md.: I think as soon as the White House was informed about Daschle's tax problems, his name should have immediately been removed from the nomination. President Obama should have called a press conference to announce the problem and his decision; and reiterate because of his belief in a transparent government, he has chosen to remove Daschle's name.
This action would have sent a stronger message to the American people. The message that this new Administration will not wait on the media to expose corruption amongst any nominees, etc, but the President, when made aware of any potential corruption and embarrassment will move swiftly in addressing the issue; and removing people if necessary.
Since the media had to expose this corruption, I wonder just how effective is the President's team in vetting individuals.
John Dickerson: The vet was fine. The White House made a calculation: that Daschle's qualifications for the job would overcome the problems.
Audit them all: Here's a thought. Audit all members of the Senate and House and make the results public. I think this would promote transparency, accountability and responsibility. Also, a few good headlines, no?
John Dickerson: And it would probably clear out half the House and Senate.
Chattanooga, Tenn.: I was going to quit paying my taxes start using a limousine service to take me everywhere I went in an attempt to get the administration to consider me for a Cabinet level position like Sec. of Dereliction, but I sense that conventional wisdom in this regard may be shifting.
John Dickerson: Plus, with budget cuts that department is likely to be zero funded.
Anonymous: I imagine the Obama Administration will take a while to come up with a new HHS nominee (and add a question such as, "Is there anything—I mean anything—that might serve as an obstacle to your nomination and make the President look like a chump for choosing you?"). Will they shy away from naming someone who has been a success in the private sector, since those with big bucks may use more tax loopholes to avoid paying high taxes (something Republicans are against, of course)? Does Obama need to choose someone currently in office, hoping they have at least been recently partly vetted? Arnold Schwarzenegger? Sarah Palin?
John Dickerson: It's going to take a while, I would think too, and I wonder what the standard is now that Daschle has gone. How will the next person with an issue be treated by the opposition and the press?
Washington, DC: It may have been the accountant's fault for Daschle's taxes, but I still found it refreshing that Obama willingly said, multiple times yesterday to multiple news outlets, that he screwed up. As disappointing as most of this has been, I have to admit that made it a little more bearable.
John Dickerson: Yup. Obama said he would admit mistakes and he did. Refreshing and candid.
What does this say about the tax code?: Is it so complicated that even the best and brightest in the country (including some who helped write the laws) can't totally understand it? Or are they flagrantly disregarding their obligations?
John Dickerson: Yes, you could almost imagine that it's a stealth effort to build support for the flat tax.
Clifton Forge, Va.: Why in the world would Obama's check out group not look closely into every cabinet appointee's financial situation, especially taxes, before giving Obama the OK sign? Clinton's attempt to fill the Attorney General twice in his first term should have registered a reference area.
John Dickerson: They did look through the tax question. They knew about it and just thought they could handle the fallout.
btw, I love Clifton Forge.
I think Geithner won't resign but I think they are realizing the toll this has taken: But he's the only one who SHOULD resign. Can we really be expected to play by the rules if the Secretary doesn't?
John Dickerson: This is the sentiment that is causing problems for Obama and the legislation he's putting forward.
Bronx, N.Y.: Its just a little too precious to hear these hacks who didn't say didly when Abromoff was raiding the treasury, or who didn't care when Kenny Boy was vetting Bush's cabinet, to be giving their sanctimonious speeches now. Any recorded instances of a politician's head exploding from the weight of rank hypocrisy? Note to next Democratic president: Lose the 'restoring ethics' theme and wallow in the slime like the rest of them. The press likes it better.
John Dickerson: I'm not quite sure who the target here is but it seems overly ambitious to rail against hypocrisy while suggesting candidates should act hypocritically by running against things they believe in.
Philadelphia, PA: The basic point in how to avoid making such a "mistake" as Geithner and Daschle made: be honest.
The second step is each of these "gentlemen" should buy themselves or their tax advisors a copy of TurboTax for about $50 and use it—both of the points that these two, unfortunate, undereducated and inexperienced individuals made would have been picked up by TurboTax if they answered the questions HONESTLY.
It's interesting that none of these politicians have ever been accused of overpaying their taxes!
John Dickerson: Perhaps they could put money in the stimulus package for turbotax.
Santa Fe, N.M.: I am more concerned with looking forward on reforming health care than with looking backward on mistakes make in vetting and appointments. If Sen. Daschle is such a good guy and so necessary to implement the President's health care reform package, why doesn't he repent by paying the usual 20 percent penalty on the taxes he neglected to pay and volunteer to serve his country by shepherding through the reform package on a pro bono basis?
John Dickerson: He's too damaged a messenger. The penalty wouldn't have fixed the notion that the well-connected are treated differently. There's also the special-interest problem which has nothing to do with taxes.
TurboTax: Does it ask you if you have a car and driver? I use TaxAct and it never asked me that question.
John Dickerson: My guess is that it asks you if you receive any other form of compensation. The "honesty" point would come in if Daschle was being dishonest by thinking the car was a gift from a friend. TurboTax would not have helped him if he thought, as he says he did, that the car was a gift from a friend and not compensation.
Plano, Texas: Love your column and insight on Slate; I'm an avid fan.
I'm wondering what your thoughts are on how much leeway Obama and the administration have in terms of the public perception. He's come in (rightly so, in my view at least) on such a wave of hope and change and likability, painted favorably for the most part by the news media and popular opinion. Do revelations such as these mean that his grace period with public opinion is ending? Does the snafu with Daschle just serve as a cold reminder that politicians are just politicians? (Or is it just too soon to tell?)
John Dickerson: Thanks very much for reading and your kinds words.
I think it's too soon to tell. This is a good sized bump but then so was Reverend Wright during the campaign. Obama is known for his equanimity and so he'll have to show that here. He'll move past this—which he partially did by admitting his mistake—and then he'll have to show that he can put together a stimulus package that meets his goals. If he can do that, which essentially means performing a series of difficult consecutive dance maneuvers over a sustained period of time, then he'll be back to roughly where he was before the Daschle flap.
Washington, D.C.: I think Obama is acting disgracefully with respect to Daschle. Daschle was one of the first seasoned politicians to support Obama's presidential run, and supported him every step of the way. Indeed, there's a decent argument that Obama would never be where he is without having gained the critical support of Daschle early on. Obama made a political calculation that he wanted Daschle for HHS and had no problem trumpeting his qualifications, all the while knowing that a tax issue lingered in the background. Then there's some public fallout over the issue and Obama goes on multiple national TV networks to say he "screwed up"? Obama is completely throwing Daschle under the bus, so that he can come off as this pious believer in change. What a joke. Obama could have handled this with a lot more class and dignity.
John Dickerson: Interesting. Thanks for that perspective. As a political matter it seems to me that after the guy throws himself under a bus, as Daschle did, Obama can follow on in doing so. This isn't to refute the point you make at the personal level. I'm trying to think it through.
D.C.: For the record, Geithner said he WAS using TurboTax.
John Dickerson: This is right. He said he used it and didn't remember being prompted. The company never argued that he would have been. It said the software relies on accurate information from the person doing their taxes. In this case, Geithner.
Berkeley, Calif.: Any ideas on who might be Daschle's replacement?
John Dickerson: I have no idea. I haven't been doing any reporting on that today. I'm trying to figure out where the stimulus package is going.
New York : Obama couldn't win this one. For him not to give Daschle something would have been ingratitude, and a sign that he wouldn't reward his friends. Daschle mentored him when he got to the Senate, and Obama owed him big time. Who told Daschle not to pay his taxes, or to lie about it to the vetters? Or to wait until last month to pay the piper? And it would be nice if someone, anyone in the media reported that the Left is very very happy that this guy is not calling the shots on health reform. Or would that irritate the other sleezy characters in government?
John Dickerson: I've seen mixed views on Daschle from "the left" so perhaps that's why the piece hasn't been written. But it probably will be.
John Dickerson: Okay, thanks everyone. I've got to run to do an interview. Thanks for your questions. Be well.