“I screwed up.” Not words you often hear from a politician, let alone an American president just two weeks in office. The phrase and variants of it were much on President Barack Obama’s lips last Tuesday afternoon in a series of interviews with America’s top television news anchors. A bad day for his fledgling presidency? No, I’d say a pretty good one.

Obama’s mistake was to imagine that former Senator Tom Daschle would be the right man clear the Augean stable of America’s health care system in spite of Daschle’s cavalier approach to paying taxes – taxes, worse, on income earned hawking his good name in the service of interests who like the stables as they are.

Most of Washington made the same mistake.  It came as a shock to almost everyone that Daschle changed his mind about becoming Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services.   So ideal were his credentials , the consensus ran, the Senate would easily confirm his appointment, overlooking the R 1.5 million he hurriedly forked over to the Internal Revenue Service to square accounts before subjecting himself to public scrutiny as a presidential appointee.

Yes, the tax matter would have triggered Republican votes against Daschle’s confirmation, but the Democrats would have stood united behind their former colleague, and with their now sizeable majority would have had no trouble prevailing. Daschle is well-liked.

So well liked, in fact, that the punditocracy leans to the view that health care reform has taken an enormous hit because Daschle will no longer be Obama’s point man. General De Gaulle would rightly have disdained such thinking.  As he said, the cemeteries are full of indispensable men. Even so, it will have been painful for Obama to let Daschle go.  Daschle was a mentor to him when he came to the Washington in 2005 and an early endorser of what, to most in Washington, at first seemed a hopelessly quixotic presidential bid.

In ditching Daschle, Obama did not listen to his party or to Washington insiders or to his own personal loyalties. Instead, he held himself accountable to the public, and to what the public elected him to do, which is to change the way Washington does business. That is why Tuesday was his St Crispin’s Day — the day Obama showed that he meant to be to business as usual in Washington what Henry V was to the French at Agincourt.

What Daschle paid to settle up with the tax man is close to three times to the median annual income of US households. He came to owe that much because, after losing his South Dakota senate seat in 2004, he was nonetheless deemed to remain a very valuable insider who could attract clients to, and make rain for, a powerhouse Washington law and lobbying firm.

Being ex-Senator Daschle for three years earned him R 50 million, including the sort of mundane kindnesses ANC president Jacob Zuma is accused of receiving from Schabir Sheik. The donor in Daschle’s case was one Leo Hindery, a successful telecommunications entrepreneur with bets riding on the right laws getting enacted and regulators making the right decisions.

That said, Citizen Daschle committed no indictable offence in taking money and services – car and chauffeur among them — for the use of his name and influence. He resembled Al Capone only in failing to report it all to the IRS.

Daschle is not the only Obama appointee with problematic tax returns, but his case is distinct from that of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who underpaid while working at the IMF.  Geithner prepared his returns himself using Turbo Tax, a popular computer programme. I can attest as a veteran user that Turbo Tax was not written with the peculiar status of US IMF employees in mind. Why Geithner was preparing his own returns while at the IMF beats me.  But if he was and was using Turbo Tax, his $43 000 mistake is plausibly honest.

Obama did not screw up, on what we know so far, in appointing Geithner.  Daschle is a different matter. That Obama admitted his mistake is another reason to believe he represents real change.

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