I'd Pay For Orszag's Starbucks, Too.

by Jonathan Cohn | April 2, 2009

Imagine opening the Washington Post to read this:

OBAMA ADVISOR KILLS PEDESTRIAN
Budget Director Was Blackberrying and Reaching for Secure Phone While Driving

Probably not a good thing, huh? But I have to wonder if that's what David Sirota had in mind when he decided to write an item about Budget Director Peter Orszag earlier this week.

The occasion for the item was a profile of Orszag that ran in The New York Times. It was not a policy piece; rather, it was a color profile and a rather positive one at that. The writer, Jodi Kantor, had lots of access and she described, among other things, how Orszag has a driver take him to and from work. (Kantor mentions that Orszag stops at Starbucks to load up on iced tea; that's how we find out about it.)

It was the car that attracted Sirota's attention--and ire:

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?

...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

Look, this is just silly. By law, the president gets to designate a certain number of top officials for car service to and from home. And there are some very good reasons for that, starting with the fact that the president needs secure means for communicating with these people. (Among other things, Orszag often participates in National Security Council discussions.) Arranging those communications is a lot easier to do if, on the commute back and forth to home, Orszag is in a government-outfitted car.

And as the Times story makes clear, Orszag, like most top officials in the Obama administraiton, works ridiculously long hours. There's an economic crisis to handle, a budget to steer through Congress, and huge domestic initiatives to push forward. As a taxpayer, I would really like Orszag to be giving these issues as much attention as possible. If that means providing him with a car, so he gets an extra hour or so a day, I consider that money well spent. I'd even spring for the occasional Starbucks.

Maybe Sirota didn't infer all of this from the article and maybe he didn't know about the law. And maybe his time is even more precious than Orszag's, so that he didn't have the time to pick up the phone or send an email to inquire about these things. Fine. But what really annoyed me about the item--and motivated me to write about it--was this pervasive sense that Orszag was out of touch with the "Rest of Us," since it's just the kind of meme that might get traction.

I happen to spend the majority of my time around non-rich, non-Washingtonians, and I can assure you that most of them could grasp why Orszag might need a driver. And if they were familiar with Orszag's policy positions, I suspect they'd appreciate those, too.

While I don't always agree with Orszag--I think he's a bit to my right on fiscal issues--the suggestion that he advocates "slashing" Social Security is just wrong. Remember, this is the economist who fought privatization bitterly (and successfully). Remember, too, that this is the advisor who helped craft, and is now promoting, a budget that promises the most ambitious domestic policy agenda in a generation. If we enact health care reform, climate change legislation, and a host of other liberal initiatives, Orszag will deserve some credit.

Sirota acknolwedges as much at the very end of his item, in a way that suggests he had second thoughts about what he wrote. (It may be an update; I can't tell for sure.) I know the feeling. I've often written blog items that, upon completion, seem overwrought. But I usually delete them or state, unambiguously, that I was wrong. Perhaps Sirota should have done the same.

--Jonathan Cohn

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-plank/id-pay-orszags-starbucks-too