It isn’t a Republican or a Democratic Party problem, and it isn’t unique to the Obama Administration. It is a structural problem in American government, a conflict of interest that pits the best interests of the American people against the political interests of the party in power. The only solution to the problem, since it is here to stay, is leaders who acknowledge the conflict, are dedicated to doing the right thing anyway, and have the courage to demand that their staffs do likewise.
The Soyndra scandal shows that Barack Obama is not such a leader. That does not make him unique, but it is a serious ethical flaw nonetheless.
As e-mails obtained by the Washington Post showed, the Obama White House tried to rush federal reviewers for a decision on a more than half-billion-dollar loan to the solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, despite the fact that the Office of Management and Budget protested repeatedly that it was not being given sufficient time to evaluate the transaction. The reason for the rush? Pure politics. White House political strategists wanted to make sure Vice President Biden could announce the approval at a September 2009 groundbreaking for the company’s factory. This would mean satisfying the President’s environmentalist base. That it also meant that rashly risking a half-billion taxpayer dollars when the nation was already deeply in debt was acceptable to these people, whose job it is to win election and massage popularity polls, not to govern. And should a half-billion dollars intended to work for the nation as a whole be the tools of partisan political manipulation? Of course not. But they were, and often are.
The August 2009 e-mails show White House officials repeatedly asking OMB reviewers when they would be able to decide on the federal loan to the Silicon Valley company, a centerpiece in President Obama’s initiative to develop clean energy technologies. Anxious White House political managers noted a fast-approaching press event at which Biden planned to announce the deal. Under pressure, OMB officials expressed concern that their diligence was being compromised, that they were being rushed to approve the company’s project without adequate time to assess the risk to taxpayers. One e-mail from an OMB official referred to “the time pressure we are under to sign-off on Solyndra.” Another complained, “There isn’t time to negotiate.” A message written by a senior OMB staffer and sent to Terrell P. McSweeny, Biden’s domestic policy adviser, concluded, “We would prefer to have sufficient time to do our due diligence reviews.”
The loan was approved. Solyndra collapsed this month, leaving taxpayers liable for all $535 million, and serving as a perfect example of what can happen when national policy is driven by politics rather than objective analysis—in other words, when governance is polluted by conflict of interest. White House officials have said that no one in the administration tried to influence the OMB decision on the loan, stressing that the e-mails show only that the administration had a “quite active interest” in the timing of OMB’s decision.
This is a lie. When the White House, speaking for the President of the United States as the White House by definition does, keeps making it clear that what is wanted from the OMB is not a careful, well-reasoned, thorough analysis of a transaction whatever the final determination is, but an approval as quickly as possible, that is influence. It is interference. If the only way the OMB could do its job properly was for someone there to say, “Get out of our face! We will not be rushed. This will get done when it gets done, because we want to do the job right,” then the White House has influenced the process and the results.
Before the collapse, the White House had previously said that it had no involvement in the Solyndra loan application and that all decisions were made by career officials based on the merits of the company. This may be literally true, but it is deceit, which is just a particularly effective form of lie, Bill Clinton’s specialty. The White House was pushing for the loan to be approved, and this is, in fact, “involvement.”
Investigators for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is holding a hearing on Solyndra, concluded that the White House set a closing date for the OMB approval even before the OMB review had begun, and that White House pressure may well have had a “tangible impact” on the OMB’s risk assessment of the loan.
Of course it did.
This is what happens when the political side of the White House becomes involved with the policy side, and in this White House, the sides have been all but indistinguishable. It should be a primary objective of every President to avoid this political pollution like the plague on democracy that it is, but instead, our recent Presidents have embraced it. Karl Rove had no business being a White House advisor. Neither did James Carville. These people aren’t paid to consider what’s best for America; they are paid to suck up to voters—donors, interest groups, and core constituencies in particular. When Obama appointed the likes of Rahm Emmanuel, David Plouffe, and David Axelrod, all hope that this administration would be less conflicted than its predecessors vanished.
Solyndra is just one, stinking, expensive example of the dozens of bad decisions aimed at political gain rather than national welfare that have occurred in all recent administrations. We should not shrug it off as business as usual, and we should not tolerate it. It is the result of a dangerous conflict of interest, and if the President himself will not work to mitigate its effects, this is the kind of fiasco that occurs.
President Obama hasn’t addressed it, and isn’t addressing it, and with the election approaching, he won’t address it. When more awful decisions result, he is accountable.