Why Is the "Deficit Hawk" Budget Director Being Chauffered Around With Our Taxpayer Money?

by: David Sirota

Tue Mar 31, 2009 at 15:21

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).

David Sirota :: Why Is the "Deficit Hawk" Budget Director Being Chauffered Around With Our Taxpayer Money?
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.  

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Perhaps its more efficient? (4.00 / 2)
Orzag seems to travel around DC a lot -- maybe this way he can be on his phone or reviewing budget papers all the time, rather than spend 2-3 hours per day driving or taking the metro.

Of course, I hope he doesn't have a designated driver who sits around waiting for six hours while he is at the WH. These mid-level big shots should have a fleet of drivers who do pick ups and drop offs, like a private taxi company for the govt. I'd like to know more about this before slamming him over it.

Image vs efficiency (4.00 / 1)
It is much more efficient to have a driver if your job allows you to work from the car.  The more important and/or paid the job, the more it helps.  If Orzag spends an hour or more a day in the car, that is an hour or more he can work for us.

But David is correct about the imagery.  Reality be damned, it looks bad.

In reality we should be upset at our top government officials for not being efficient and wasting time on populist images, but it doesn't work that way.

[ Parent ]
ITD that this looks bad. ANYONE who watches tv or a movie knows (0.00 / 0)
That a perk is the car service; and it's the only one really. This is not something to argue over: the guy works 80 or 90 hours a week and he gets a car to pick him up and take him home from the office. That's not crazy. And to even bring it up IMO puts people in the Obama is a socialist category of political bomb-throwing. Folks are going to ignore you and it discredits future true attacks you may have on the subject.

This was just stupid IMO.

[ Parent ]
So you think the average American is smarter than David? (0.00 / 0)
I certainly agree with you this is stupid.  But when it comes to image I've learned not to pay attention to my own reaction, what matters is the reaction of everyone else.  

[ Parent ]
These people should not be driving themselves around. (4.00 / 3)
I want these people to work as hard as David Sirota. That means they should have people to do all the things that can be done be someone else.

I think David needs paid help too. David shouldn't be doing anything that he can avoid, and hiring someone to help David would be one less person without a job. I don't want David to stop writing an article for In These Times, just he can go over three blocks and ask some barista to take off his headphones so he can order double espreso in his vente cafe Americano, or whatever. America is waiting for that analysis, not the person he hired's opinion. I can't make puff pastry.


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

If Government officials took mass transit to work, (4.00 / 1)
the system would improve.

Two Americas: (10 Wall Street and Gov't and (2) working people.

i have a driver, too (4.00 / 3)
it's called a "taxi".

if Orszag took cabs everywhere, would that be a sufficient faux-populist symbol for you? because i am not seeing the huge difference.


not everything worth doing is profitable. not everything profitable is worth doing.

Perhaps (0.00 / 0)
David should've contacted someone for clarification or comment before rushing to judgment?

[ Parent ]
Yeah, let him ride a bike to work or (4.00 / 3)
he should use the metro or hop on a bus.  Just who does he think he is?

And about that baby? throw him out with the bath water...

Sorry David, I think you're trying too hard.

What else? (4.00 / 1)
I know people that have drivers.  They are specialized surgeons and the time in the car is used to dictate notes, call back patients, review films.  These people don't flaunt the driver.  Second, the driver does other tasks during the day (filing, sending records to patients, ordering supplies).  

Orzag's driver might be part of a pool services multiple government employees.  If not, he/she should have other tasks instead of merely being on call.

And you are right.  Don't flaunt it.

He's not flaunting it; the writer added it to give his story color. (0.00 / 0)
Orzag just gave an interview. It's like the fact that they think his living room looks like an office; a bit of color to the story to situate folks and give flavor to the piece.

[ Parent ]
While we're at it (4.00 / 2)
He should lay off his secretary too, if he still has one, and if there's a deputy budget director or assistant budget director they should get the axe. In fact, let's chop out the entire office of budget director! Then we'll really show 'em who's got images and appearances under control! We don't need a real budget anyway, just something budget-ish.

This Orszag guy should be doing the real work that real workers do when they really work. He should be carrying heavy boxes around his office, raking leaves in the White House front yard, and taking out his own recycling. Someone ought to get a drill press and install it on his desk, and make him spend an hour a day with a hard hat and ear/eye protection on, getting his photo taken while drilling holes in sheet metal without any help from anyone. And shouldn't he be helping Michelle dig holes in the organic garden?

I don't care if he is carried to work in a litter by four Eunuchs... (0.00 / 0)
if he lays off Social Security and supports Universal Health Care expenditures.

If his policy suggestions are dreck then walking to work carrying a child on his back while helping an old lady across the street means absolutely nothing.

I think one of the biggest problems this country, and our politics in particular, has is its preoccupation with image and perception.

of course he wouldn't have been able (0.00 / 0)
to do the interview while traveling otherwise.  So it's pretty obvious here he has gained work time, though obviously the image may be bad.

New Jersey politics at Blue Jersey.

This is a bullshit post that discredits you IMO. (0.00 / 0)
This guy gets a car and driver: it's always been this way. Hell, I watched that 13 days film w/the dude from Dances w/Wolves who I can not for the life of me remember and won't waste time googling and he played an aide to Kennedy who had a car and driver.

Orzag works insane hours and he gets this as a perk for basically losing his life for the next four years. That's what happens when you serve your country and work for the president. He gets a fairly decent home life; everyone else works insane 80 or 90 hour weeks, seven days a week and has to claw for time with their family.

The American people, despite the Drudge-like insistence, are not that facile and idiotic. The fact that Peter Orzag has a car and driver says NOTHING about this administrations policies and to make it seem like the appearance of this would is stupid beyond belief.

And I'm writing this because I like your work; but this pisses me off completely. It's like you think , slow news day, hey this guy looks like a tool if I highlight the fact he has a car and driver and I fundamentally disagree with his policies.

Furthurmore: after all the White House films and the actual West Wing tv show people know about the car and driver perk. And given the fact that money to update the WH car fleet was in the stimulus and the WH got slammed for that; the fact that they've got a car service is  out there too.  

2nd tier government hacks... (0.00 / 0)
...can get away with a few caffe lattes and Jamba juice pit stops. How much the is taxpayer putting out for Obama's G20 trip over eight days - a spokesperson for the President defends the overseas Entourage that includes the White House chef, a staff of 500 governmental officials, and 200 secret service personnel. Spokeshole says the President needs these people with him to keep in touch with domestic legislation and the ongoing economic crisis...p-l-e-a-s-e.  

Delta Shuttle (0.00 / 0)
Possibly Geithner couldn't get on the Shuttle first class because there were too many Banksters' support people in first class, all the ones that couldn't fit on the private planes.

This is remarkably trivial (4.00 / 1)
Wow, just wow.  I can't imagine any one actually caring about this.

The Real Point... (0.00 / 0)
...is that some officials -- not everyone -- lose touch inside the bubble.  Having a car & driver is not just being inside the bubble, it's a force field that shields one from the hassles and chance encounters of everday life.    

I'm not saying Orszag is out of touch.  Indeed, he hasn't had time to be out of touch!  I'm sure he works very hard.  There is a lot of value in his time.  People in his position just need to be extra careful that they don't start thinking they are entitled to 5 star treatment and forget about the way that %99.999 of us live.  A small example: one does not encounter homeless folks if you have a car & driver, if you take the subway to work you encounters plenty of homeless people.  Over time, people reflect thier environment.  I just hope Mr. Orszag doesn't forget the folks who elected his boss.

Really DS? This is BS! (4.00 / 1)
It is a pool of drivers that shuttle back and forth between the WH and Cap hill. There is allot of work going on right now between the two - you know?

You can do better than this. Don't be as lazy as the reporters you criticize!

Not sure what the big point is supposed to be (0.00 / 0)
Two things:

1.  Most of the commenters here don't seem to have read the entire post, since you say yourself this isn't actually important and that it only matters as a symbol.  So all this 'This is not important' stuff in response completely fails to adequately respond to Sirota.

2.  That said I don't know why the phenomena that you take it to be a symbol of is supposed to be important.  Is anything of much value lost when the rich and powerful don't pretend to be normal folks?  They aren't normal folks whether they carry their own bags or not.  Small perks like a driver don't make them the royalty class.  The money they represent makes them a royalty class, and they would still represent that money, and have all the real power that representing big money brings with it, whether they had some perks or not.  And, I can't understand how losing a little bit of the show is a bad thing.  I am not saying it is a good thing, but I just don't wish for the days when I was being lied to.

Interesting (0.00 / 0)
First of all, thanks for being one of the only commenters to actually address the substance of the post, and not caricature it into something it never was.

Your second point is an interesting one - specifically, the idea of being lied to. I didn't think of it that way. Good point.

[ Parent ]
Cariacture? (4.00 / 1)
You basically take a couple off-hand bits in an interview and then leap to the conclusion that Orszag has a personal driver and how horrible it is. Then in another post, you admit you'd sensationalize the story for ratings even if it doesn't have much merit.

Of course, if you'd bother doing any research or possibly picking up the phone, you might have realized that.

Instead, you avoid addressing any criticism and run in the opposite direction. I guess it all hit a little too close to the bulls-eye.

[ Parent ]
I think you & David really have it backwards (4.00 / 2)
Having a driver is not a "perk". Having a driver means you have to work longer hours. It means you have less time for yourself, enjoying driving, listening to NPR on your way to work and the New World Symphony on the way home. It means you have to spend that extra 1-2 hours a day not calming yourself or thinking about the weather or decompressing with a phone call to Mom. It means you're expected to be on task, on cellular wi-fi, on the phone to the office, or doing press avails like this interview. This driver "perk" really is a requirement for him to extend his work hours that much farther into the night.

That's the appearance here: Orzag works so long and so hard at his job he doesn't even get to drive himself home.

[ Parent ]
Spreading the wealth (0.00 / 0)
It's a good thing to bring up all facets of politics and government workings... even the fact that someone in a lower rank of government gets chauffeured around in a big car.

Consider that wherever someone is employed, he gets money, which he then spends into the system. What get missed is the key to all our economic woes: Who creates, on what basis,and controls the distribution of money through the system.

I think I prefer a driver getting getting a 60K salary a year, than giving the money to the financial community through the various bailouts. The financial community rarely spends it into the real economy, and when it does, there's conditions and restrictions that keeps them in charge, no matter who has the money; this is trickle down to the rank and file. The driver, gushes it out, and relinquishes control as soon as he spends it, and makes no conditions on the person who receives the money beyond the fact that it the product should be what is purported to be. The driver will most likely spends it into the real economy.

A National Progressive Alliance, is the only viable solution.


Um..... (0.00 / 0)
As at least one other person has said - it's probable that he has a lot of meetings across the city during the day, and simply needs to get around quickly.  Also, is it possible that as a senior member of the White House staff he needs a "secure" car? Also, having a driver allows him to communicate with others in government while riding to the numerous meetings.  This really does not bother me (or most people).  

what is your proposed alternative (0.00 / 0)
David you seem to acknowledge that you don't mind the substance of what Orzag is doing to the degree he is making a good use of his time, but that you don't like the symbolism of this.  What would you like to see him do?  How would you have him be efficient with his travel time while not giving us bad symbolism?


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