Commentary Magazine


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No Surprise

Maureen Dowd takes the president to task for his “surprisingly snarky” put down of Joe Biden at the primetime press conference last week. She has a point. Not only did it show a decided lack of grace — a new and unpleasant trait for the White House (see Judd Gregg) –but it reminded us that Biden was one of many odd and ultimately foolhardy personnel decisions.

In the campaign we had Mr. Insider/Countrywide Mortgage Friend/former Fannie Mae CEO James Johnson, who was for a time put in charge of the VP search. Next we got Biden who proved to lack discipline and gravitas. Then came the list of faulty nominees — Bill Richardson, Tom Daschle, Tim Geithner, Judd Gregg , and Nancy Killefer –plus the less high-profile ones who are making it through (e.g. Hilda Solis, William Lynn) but proving to be more trouble than they are worth.

President Bush was accused of putting cronies in office, favoring intimates over competent candidates. But what is Obama’s excuse? None of the troubled nominees  had a lifetime association with Obama.  Nor were their failings secret. They, and especially Biden, simply lived up to their reputations. It’s not like everyone in Washington was ignorant that Daschle was the worst incarnation of the Washington insider, that Richardson had legal issues or that Joe Biden is a blowhard.

But Obama chose them anyway, perhaps lacking the management acumen to know two basic truths about important, and especially presidential, hiring decision. First, nothing gets swept under the rug for long. Second, mature people don’t change their basic character or beliefs. It takes a certain cluelessness, or maybe arrogance, for a president to think he can avoid scrutiny, spin his way around real issues and remold adults with large egos and established track records.

Perhaps the president has learned his lesson. If so, rather than taunting his hapless VP in public, he might re-examine his own decision-making process. He might work on evaluating candidates for who they are. But as we know from a long list of questionable associations, spotting the bad apple has never been Obama’s strong suit.  We shouldn’t then be surprised  if we see more faulty personnel picks.