OK, look - if we can all acknowledge that images and appearances are pretty important in politics, then I genuinely don't understand this:
As he heads to his job as White House budget director, [Peter Orszag] already seems to pulse with energy, but he asks his driver to stop at Starbucks for enormous doses of iced and hot tea.
That's one of two references to Orszag's driver, and I'm pretty sure it's not his own driver, but a federal government driver (and car) - and that's what I genuinely don't understand.* How does a budget director who claims to be a deficit hawk in an administration that insists it wants to get rid of government waste nonetheless get driven around in a government car with a taxpayer-paid driver? At at time of recession and belt-tightening, this is the same budget director who says budgets have to be so tight we may need to slash Social Security - and yet this glorified accountant is being driven around in a taxpayer funded car like some sort of royalty?
I'm not being Drudge-ishly sensationalistic here - other budget directors undoubtedly had the same luxuries, this is a small expense in the huge federal budget, and I'm sure D.C.'s spinmeisters have some logical-sounding pro-chauffer argument, replete with polished talking points and computer slide shows. That is, it's not all that big a substantive deal, nor is it some unprecedented decision by Orszag.
But image-wise, if contemporary politics hinges on appearances, it's not good - and it is an important symbol (one that, had, say, Bush budget director Mitch Daniels - a purported deficit hawk - fallen into, every single progressive would have screamed about, just like every progressive screamed bloody murder about John McCain's multiple houses).
|Indeed, it's a perfect - if small - representation of a Beltway political and media culture that is totally out of touch with - and even defiantly ignorant of - what the mass public is going through.
Think about it - at a time the White House is telling the Rest of Us we're going to have to sacrifice, it seem more than a bit "let them eat cake"-ish for a "deficit hawk" budget director to have himself chauffered around Washington by a taxpayer-sponsored driver in a government car. I mean, even if there is some sort of incredibly substantive reason why this is necessary, the fact that this budget director would simultaneously float the idea of slashing the elderly's meager Social Security benefits while allowing himself to be profiled in his chauffered car by the biggest newspaper in America shows a fundamental lack of regard for appearances (and perhaps even more gross is the fact that the New York Times Jodi Kantor is herself so much a part of that grotestque D.C. culture that she doesn't even bother to mention the irony of the situation - as if she didn't even notice it).
And remember, this isn't just some cabinet secretary - this is the person who says it is his whole job to cut the budget down to the bone. I'm not even saying he shouldn't have a car and driver - what I'm saying is if you're going to specifically portray yourself as Mr. We All Must Sacrifice And Cut the Budget to the Bone, then at the absolute minimum, it might be a good idea not to get profiled by the New York Times being chauffered around Washington, D.C.? Like, at least show you have enough respect for the public that you will try to make the optics avoid a royalist image.
I don't think government officials have to live like monks (and, indeed, they don't, even if they don't have a chauffered car - many federal government employees - even down to mid-level staffers - make hefty six-figure salaries). And again, I'm not trying to be nitpicky or sensationalistic here - on the whole, this is not, unto itself, a big deal nor unprecedented (though when you add up these kinds of expenses, the numbers undoubtedly start to get real). But don't kid yourself - it is a symbol of a city that has changed from one where presidents and administrations made sure to express solidarity with a struggling public through images (remember Jimmy Carter carrying his bags and/or wearing a sweater?), to a city so totally divorced from the public that it doesn't even bother to feign said solidarity.** And that divorce comes at the very time Blue Collar America is starting to ask the Obama administration which side it is really on? In other words, it comes at a time when we need the Obama administration to be going out of its way to show solidarity, not going out of its way to be tone deaf.
While the Rest of Us worry about our jobs, our health care, keeping a roof over our heads, and paying our taxes, D.C. has become a trough of taxpayer largesse to corporate special interests and a Hollywood-like party for politicians, their aides and their media stenographers to gallivant around in their taxpayer-funded cars.
And I do think, actually, there is something of a substantive issue beneath all that. Yes, I want government officials to be efficient and to have things that let them maximize their time - but I also think that when you create a royalty class, you get policies that don't really empathize with what the public wants. You get budget directors who, as just one example, float Social Security cuts while giving away trillions to Wall Street - because, hey, everyone has a chauffer, right?
ADDENDUM: On policy, I have some problems with Orszag, but I want to be clear that I think the Obama budget is quite good in many ways, and I also think Orzag in particular has been excellent in speaking out on the issue of health care. So this shouldn't be seen as any kind of personal attack on him, but a criticism of D.C.'s general tone deafness.
* Note: If Orszag is independently wealthy and paying for his own car and driver, then I will retract this post. However, I don't think he is.
** Kudos to Tim Geithner - he probably has a driver, and I've certainly been critical of him on policy - but at least he has tried to make sure media profiles of himself include some symbolism that shows a sense of shared sacrifice.