Barack Obama takes office today with a mandate to improve the economy. But he'll have to start his new gig without a Treasury secretary. His nominee, Timothy Geithner, has yet to be scrutinized by a U.S. Senate that needs to ask tough questions, such as: Sir, how can you urge Americans to do right by the Internal Revenue Service you would oversee, given that you didn't pay more than $34,000 in payroll taxes just a few years ago?
The more details we learn about Geithner's taxes, the more we question the wisdom of appointing him to such a crucial post. His qualifications for the job - and his popularity among Capitol Hill Democrats and Republicans - are high. But with each new disclosure, it's a lengthening stretch to dismiss his tax-form omissions as mere mistakes.
Geithner's predicament raises a larger question as well: In its rush to name an all-star Cabinet, did Team Obama make too many allowances for too many people? Was the vetting process rigorous enough - or did someone neglect to explore fully the vulnerabilities of the candidates for these important jobs? The Geithner conundrum accompanies four other embarrassing episodes:
On Jan. 4, Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew as commerce secretary-designate because of a grand jury investigation in his home state of New Mexico. The evident question is whether a prominent businessman and donor to Richardson and Obama got favored status from Richardson's office in competing for work as a state financial adviser. The FBI's investigation of the matter has been the subject of news reports since August.
On Wednesday the Senate Commerce Committee announced, just before meeting to consider the nomination of Illinois' Ray LaHood as secretary of transportation, that the hearing would be postponed at least until next week. The Washington Post reported that LaHood, who retired from the U.S. House last month, "has close ties to a Republican power broker, William F. Cellini Sr., who was indicted in the pay-to-play scandal that also led to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's recent arrest. ..." The Post's account noted that Obama's transition team has become increasingly anxious about the backgrounds of its Cabinet nominees.
Hillary Clinton appears to be sailing toward Senate confirmation as secretary of state despite her husband's disclosure that, since leaving office, he has raked in hundreds of millions of dollars for his foundation - some of it from scoundrels overseas. Will some of those donors now expect favors from the U.S. government in return? We'll see. We do know that Hillary Clinton will spend her time as this nation's chief foreign officer with that question hanging over her.
Republicans displayed no eagerness Thursday to dwell on questions about Attorney General-designate Eric Holder and his role in the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich and sentence commutations of 16 Puerto Rican terrorists during former President Bill Clinton's second term. Would Holder, who at the very least helped Clinton play politics with pardons, stand up to President Obama when the need arises?
The case of Geithner similarly revolves around matters of personal judgment. Here's a man who, when he worked for the International Monetary Fund from 2001 to 2004, was repeatedly told he would have to pay his own Social Security and Medicare taxes. He did submit a routine and legitimate request to the IMF to cover those taxes. Incredibly, he didn't pay the $34,000 to the IRS.
After the IRS audited him in 2006, Geithner made back-payments for 2003 and 2004. He didn't correct his 2001 and 2002 errors until after Obama picked him for Treasury.
Maybe Geithner has a great explanation for this behavior. If not, the Senate can decide whether to confirm as Treasury secretary - and boss of the IRS - a guy many Americans will dismiss as a tax cheat.
There's a case to be made for each of the remaining nominees: In the end, Obama may have lost only a commerce secretary.
But there's a lesson: Better to discuss a nominee's vulnerabilities when he or she is named - and not to wind up trying to extinguish fires in the final days before an inauguration. Obama's people told at least some of Geithner's woes to Senate staffers. Why didn't Team Obama also tell the rest of us?