Obama’s Appointment Crisis
By Kathy Shaidle
FrontPageMagazine.com | 3/31/2009
On March 25, yet another Obama administration nominee was forced to withdraw under a cloud of scandal. Jon Cannon had been President Barack Obama’s choice to become second in command at the Environmental Protection Agency. But the appointment has been scuttled by allegations of financial “irregularities” at the now-defunct America’s Clean Water Foundation, on whose board Cannon once served.
Two days later, the administration was hit with another personnel problem. One of the country’s main bank regulators, Scott Polakoff, was forced to take an open-ended “leave of absence” from the Treasury Department after internal audits suggested that he allowed financial institutions like IndyMac and AIG to exaggerate their balance sheets – in effect, to cook the books – a failure of oversight that contributed to the current financial meltdown. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told the Senate Budget Committee on March 3 that American International Group (AIG) “exploited a huge gap in the regulatory system” and that “there was no oversight of the Financial Products division,” an indictment that would seem to fall on Polakoff, who was second-in-command at the Treasury Department unit known as the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS).
To be sure, Polakoff had been appointed to OTS by former president George W. Bush. But the Obama administration has also been tainted by the appointment, because Polakoff was promoted to acting director of the OTS in February by President Obama, after the retirement of former director John Reich. This pair of ignoble departures from the ranks of the new administration is another embarrassment for President Obama, whose term in office already has been marred by a series of disastrous high-level appointments.
The list of casualties is long and growing: controversial “energy and environment czar” Carol Browner; Tom Daschle, who owed $140,000 in back taxes; and most recently Charles Freeman, whose connections with Saudi Arabia and China raised questions about possible conflicts of interest, forcing Freeman to withdraw his name from consideration for a top intelligence post in the administration.
Other high-level appointees have also forced to step aside during Obama’s first few weeks in office. Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was widely touted as a possible Secretary of State in an Obama administration, and was later tapped for the position of Commerce Secretary after Hillary Clinton landed the job at State. However, Richardson withdrew his name on January 4 due to a federal grand jury probe into “pay-to-play” contract influence allegations in his state. Obama’s second choice for Commerce Secretary was a Republican, Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who later withdrew as well, citing policy differences. An outspoken critic of the Iraq war, retired four-star Marine General Anthony C. Zinni, had been promised the job as ambassador to Iraq in late January only to be unceremoniously dropped from consideration.
The appointment crisis was starkly illustrated on a single day, when three different nominees backed out of senior positions with the Obama administration: Annette Nazareth, the nominee for Treasury deputy secretary; Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the senior medical correspondent with CNN who had been slated to step in as Surgeon General; and Caroline Atkinson, who’d been chosen to serve as undersecretary of international affairs by U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (who’d been confirmed after paying $35,000 in back taxes.)
Nancy Killefer was supposed to become Washington’s “first official waste watchdog,” but Obama’s choice to take the newly created post of White House Chief Performance Officer was also forced to withdraw due to pay unemployment taxes “on household help.” In her oddly worded official withdrawal statement, Killefer seemed eager to blame public scrutiny over her tax-troubles for her decision to withdraw, writing: “I recognize that your agenda and the duties facing your Chief Performance Officer are urgent. I have also come to realize in the current environment that my personal tax issue of D.C. Unemployment tax could be used to create exactly the kind of distraction and delay those duties must avoid.”
Last week, meanwhile, Obama’s choice for “urban policy czar,” Adolfo Carrion, was named in an investigation into possible wrongdoing. According to the New York Daily News, Carrion paid only $24,400 for a $50,000 home renovation project when he was still Bronx Borough President, raising concerns about possible favoritism.
Given the succession of failed nominees, it is should come as no surprise that the administration has struggled to fill cabinet positions. Of the 385 posts at cabinet-level agencies that a president must appoint, Obama had sent 100 names to the Senate as of March 24. So far, just 38 of those individuals have been confirmed. The President has also announced over twenty-five additional nominations which have yet to be submitted to the Senate. Nine weeks into the new administration, hundreds of other posts remain vacant.
Asked about the troubles plaguing the Obama administration, Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said that the White House’s “earlier vetting system was clearly flawed.” However, she added, “Now I think the administration may have gone to the other extreme and is being so stringent in its requirements and going through such a lengthy process that it is difficult for [nominees who] are willing to serve.”
The situation shows no sign of improving. Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) is critical of two upcoming nominees for both ambassador to Iraq and for assistant attorney general at the Justice Department. “There are a raft of others,” Hatch said. “I come at these matters with a desire to help the president, have him get the people he wants around him. But I’m really getting alarmed at some of the — I don’t want to call them all radicals — but some of the radical people who are being put into these sensitive, big-time positions.”
President Obama had promised a smooth transition from the previous administration of George W. Bush, as well as a thorough, transparent vetting process to ensure each appointee’s suitability for each job. But the string of aborted appointments has been a blemish on his brief time in the White House. There is a dark irony in the fact that Hillary Clinton, whose nomination for secretary of state was considered the most controversial of the administration’s appointments, has so far proven to be the most worry-free member of the president’s team.
Kathy Shaidle blogs at FiveFeetOfFury.com. Her new book exposing abuses by Canada’s Human Rights Commissions, The Tyranny of Nice, includes an introduction by Mark Steyn.