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Sunday, February 8, 2009

‘Just Like Tom Daschle’s Blues’: A Taxing Time for Obama

Everybody said they'd stand behind me

When the game got rough
But the joke was on me
There was nobody even there to call my bluff

When Tom Daschle was nominated last week to head the Department of Housing and Human Services, few, if any, Washington insiders blinked an eye. Not only is the former Senator from North Dakota one of the nation’s leading experts on health-care reform, he played a pivotal role in Obama’s rise from relative obscurity to his present perch atop the political heap.

And while there are no real ‘done deals’ in Washington, Daschle’s nomination seemed about as close as it gets. One of the earliest backers of Obama's campaign, Daschle was critical not only in soliciting support from the Democratic party but in crafting a strategy that helped defeat Obama’s most formidable opponent for the nomination, Hillary Clinton.

Tom Daschle could have had just about any position in the Obama White House he wanted. And he made no bones about the fact he wanted to run Health and Human Services.

And even though Daschle did his best to offer a plausible explanation as to why he failed to pay over $120,000 in back taxes on the millions he’s earned since leaving the Senate, it was too little too late. Clearly, the repeated choruses of ‘mea culpa’ had become a cacophonous distraction Obama could no longer afford in these critical early days of his presidency.

And so last Tuesday, in the face of what would be the second of three tax-related scandal to ensnare this administration (the third instance of an Obama appointee coming up short with Uncle Sam would be Nancy Killefer, who had been chosen by President Obama to be the Deputy Director for Management at OMB), Barack Obama accepted Tom Daschle’s withdrew his nomination for Secretary of HHS.

Political currency aside, the withdrawal of Daschle’s name as head of the Department of Health and Human Services undoubtedly cost the newly minted president more than precious political capital—it cost him a friend, a confident and political partisanship aside, probably the best man for the job. But perhaps most significantly, it severely tarnished the cult of personality that has transformed Barack Obama into one of the most recognizable, most revered and most worshiped people on the planet.

But Barack Obama isn't the only ‘rock star’ in Washington. The people with whom Obama has surrounded himself have de facto been lumped into that category as well. Not since John F. Kennedy blew into town a half century ago has the phrase, “the best and brightest,” been bantered around with more aplomb. But even rock stars are aware of the pitfalls of not giving the Man his shake.

The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, Willie Nelson, Billy Joel—all have tussled with the taxman. In the case of Willie Nelson, his run-in with the IRS cost him a pretty penny. $16.5 million in pretty pennies, to be exact. Ironically, the one rock star who has something to say on just about everything, has very little to opine on taxes.

In fact, of the 500-plus songs Bob Dylan’s written over the past four and a half decades, the word ‘taxes’ appears in just one, the fourth verse of the brutally vicious, “Ballad of a Thin Man”:

But nobody has any respect;
Anyway they already expect you;
To just give a check;
To tax-deductible charity organizations

Of course, the people Obama wants surround himself aren’t rock stars, they’re politicians. They’re supposed to be restoring our faith in government, not magnifying our disdain for it.

But it’s getting increasingly difficult to jump on the Obama bandwagon when it seems the ‘best and brightest’ can even file a simple tax return…which brings us back to Tom Daschle’s recent tax blues.

You don’t fly to the front of the political pack as quickly as Barak Obama has without a few people watching your back. And for Barack Obama that man was Tom Daschle. Daschle contributed to crafting Obama’s cult of personality as much as anyone, effectively serving as Obama’s de facto guardian angel to ensure the impatient junior Senator from Illinois’ ascension to the highest office in the land didn’t suffer the same fate as Icarus, the Greek mythological figure fell to earth when he flew too close to the sun.

But in an ironic twist of fate, it was Daschle, not Obama, who unwittingly assumed the role of Icarus—brought down by the simmering, slow-burn animosity growing in this country toward politicians who think they can operate at a different standard (not to mention different tax bracket)—than the rest of us.

And so in the end, maybe the ‘rock star’ mantra the media’s affixed to Obama isn’t so far-fetched. Clearly, Obama understands the most enduring tenet of rock n’ roll as well as anyone—“It’s better to burn out than it is to fade away.”

In the case of Tom Daschle, however, we all know who got burned…

And picking up Angel who
Just arrived here from the coast
Who looked so fine at first
But left looking just like a ghost

For a complete list of songs that evoke our disdain for that age-old pastime of paying your taxes, check out Dave White’s clever compilation, “Top 10 Songs To Do Your Taxes By”.
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