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The wondrous ways Obama's Washington works--and doesn't get it

February 4, 2009 |  8:52 am

Abraham Lincoln center speaks at second inauguration March 1865 a few weeks before his assassination

The night in 1865 that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in downtown Washington not far off the recent inaugural parade route for the man who used the same red Bible for his 2009 presidential oath, Booth's co-conspirators fanned out across town to murder other Cabinet members. The Union targets included William Seward, later of Alaska Purchase fame.

Turns out the assassins couldn't find their victims because they weren't at home. To be more accurate, Seward and others weren't in their rooms. Their rented rooms. In a boarding house.

That's the way Washington used to be, a place where representatives of the people went to work temporarily before they returned back home to the states, districts and, most important, the people they represented. Somewhere along the way, things got turned around.

Once elected, the representatives moved to the Washington area (Republicans generally to Virginia, Democrats to Maryland), got home mortgages there and, most likely, sold their home back home. Unless they had so many they couldn't keep track.

They lived in Washington and became part of a bipartisan, permanent political aristocracy because they knew, even if they ever got unelected, they'd be staying on to work in the lucrative legal-lobby-association complex that permeates that onetime swamp that Maryland gave away as worthless for the federal capital. (See video report on Obama's TV interviews about the Daschle withdrawal below.)

Pretty soon, even well-meaning elected folks began to represent Washington during their home district visits, instead of the original way. It takes a very strong personality to resist the self-import that comes from living and working and socializing in the national seat of power.

The same applies to the media, whose elites thrive on the access and exposure there. And it is a heady experience to address the president and others as unelected representatives of their audiences. Once assigned there, you may notice, few rotate back out into the field where most Americans live.

And so the District of Columbia becomes a club, mainly a fraternity still, with all the rights and privileges assigned to membership thereto. This club has its own culture, protocol and....

Flags on the Capitol above the inauguration site for Barack Obama Jan 20 2009

...rules of propriety, self-aggrandizement and way of thinking that has become incomprehensible, even distasteful, to many Americans. That's why the message of changing Washington resonates so regularly with U.S. voters, whether it's Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush or Barack Obama promising it.

Ask anyone in, say, Sparks, Neb., if they think it's OK for someone who didn't pay $34,000 taxes over several years to be in charge of the Internal Revenue Service because he's so smart, good with finances and familiar to power brokers. And, after he's caught, everyone agrees he didn't really mean to do it. (Also ask them if they think they'd get away with the unintentional excuse in their own tax case defense.)

Ask anyone in central Indiana if it passes the smell test that a defeated senator immediately gets hired for $1 million a year plus free car and driver to advise a guy who's already very rich and then makes about $5 million in two years from industries doing business with the federal government, including one he's now asked to reform by a new president who's been elected as an avowed reformer.

Even Obama, the Great Change Agent who's keeping his home on Chicago's South Side and

spent most of his partial Senate term outside Washington campaigning for a different job, didn't see or smell the hypocrisy in that. Obama was all over TV last night doing the stand-up (and politically savvy) thing to cauterize the wound, accepting full responsibility for the Tom Daschle Cabinet fiasco.

That wasn't his choice, however. The network interviews were previously scheduled, as The Ticket reported Tuesday morning, so Obama could attempt to get the Washington word war back on economic stimulus and off of pork. So besides losing Daschle, the new president also lost the chance to get back on offense. The TV interviews were similar. Here's what he told CNN's Anderson Cooper:

OBAMA: Yes. I think I made a mistake. And I told Tom that. I take responsibility for the appointees and ...

COOPER: What was your mistake, letting it get this far? You should have pulled it earlier?

OBAMA: Well, I think my mistake is not in selecting Tom originally, because I think nobody was better equipped to deal both with the substance and policy of healthcare. He understands it as well as anybody, but also the politics, which is going to be required to actually get it done.

But I think that, look, ultimately, I campaigned on changing Washington and bottom-up politics. And I don't want to send a message to the American people that there are two sets of standards, one for powerful people and one for ordinary folks who are working every day and paying their taxes.

COOPER: Do you feel you've lost some of that moral high ground which you set for yourself on Day One with the …(Crosstalk)

OBAMA: Well, you know, I think this was a mistake. I think I screwed up. And, you know, I take responsibility for it and we're going to make sure we fix it so it doesn't happen again.

Notice anything in that exchange? Nowhere is there any talk of right or wrong. In Washington's culture, unlike the lives of most normal, obviously naive Americans, that's hardly ever the issue. It's about what works. It's all about strategy. Michelle Obama's hands hold the Lincoln Bible her huisband Barack Obama to take the presidential oath jan 20, 2009

Cooper didn't ask about the propriety of appointing a sudden millionaire to now oversee the people who paid him. He asks if the president should have dumped Daschle earlier?

Obama says Daschle was the best guy; his own mistake was political, creating an impression of hypocrisy by campaigning one way and appointing another.

Fact is, 10 years ago, without the 24-hour news cycle and blogosphere, Daschle would almost certainly have been confirmed anyway; his party definitely has the votes and senators in Washington take care of each other, even when they're ex-senators. Again, the club.

And notice the reason Daschle gave for giving up. Nothing to do with having done anything wrong because, in Washington's ways, he hadn't. It had to do with becoming a "distraction" for the administration's agenda.

Again, whatever works in Washington. How likely do you think that is to change?

--Andrew Malcolm

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Photo credits: General photo via Getty Images (top - Abraham Lincoln, center, speaks at his second inauguration, just weeks before his assassination in 1865); Michael Reynolds / European Press Agency (Capitol flags above the inauguration of Obama); Associated Press (bottom - Michelle Obama holds the Lincoln Bible for her husband's oath).

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