Globe Editorial

Is Obama president yet?

May 4, 2009
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BARACK OBAMA was elected in November and inaugurated in January, and summer is coming into view. And yet some key posts in the new administration remain open. Vacancies at Treasury hinder the oversight of the vast government bailout of Wall Street. Meanwhile, as public health officials contemplate how to handle a swine flu outbreak, Obama's choice for health and human services secretary, Kansas Governor Katherine Sebelius, was only confirmed Tuesday, and other top health jobs still need to be filled.

One cause of such delays is the Obama team's much-vaunted vetting process. Another is the maneuvering of conservative interest groups. Both are part of a larger problem: the reluctance of the American political system to end the campaign season and get on with governing.

The slow progress of Sebelius's nomination was preposterous. Conservatives zeroed in on her failure to disclose all the campaign contributions she received from a Kansas abortion doctor. The error was regrettable, but opponents' real objection plainly related more to the pro-abortion-rights record Sebelius compiled as governor. But the president who nominated her is also pro-choice, and he deserves to be able to choose Cabinet officials who reflect his priorities.

That's not to say the Senate confirmation process should be a rubber stamp. While Cabinet officials help make policy, they must also ensure that agencies perform their ministerial duties in a competent, unpoliticized way. (Cf. former attorney general Alberto Gonzales.) And character flaws and a history of lapses in judgment can emerge in the public confirmation process. Timothy Geithner was confirmed as treasury secretary despite his bizarre earlier failure to pay taxes on money he earned while working for the International Monetary Fund.

Yet some interest groups - and senators - seem less interested in considering the merits of a nominee than in scoring political points. The lone vote on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee against Hillary Clinton as secretary of state came from Louisiana's David Vitter, whose reputation as a family-values conservative was damaged in a prostitution scandal.

In parliamentary systems such as Great Britain's, a new government takes over immediately after an election. Ideally, a new US president could choose from a long list of candidates who are, one might say, shovel-ready - that is, pre-approved for government service. One way or another, presidents have to answer for the quality of their appointees. Obama should fill the remaining vacancies quickly, and senators should generally give him the benefit of the doubt.

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