A United States president who admits a mistake is almost as rare as a Wall Street executive who refuses a bonus after losing money. When such humility strikes, it should be cheered to spur reform. But for a regretful Obama White House and a somewhat-rueful Wall Street, it's still unclear what reforms lie ahead for each.
President Obama admitted Tuesday he made mistakes after two of his cabinet nominees, Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer, were forced to bow out because of revelations over their nonpayment of taxes. But what kind of mistakes?
One was clear. "There aren't two sets of rules," he told NBC News, "one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes."
Still, how should Americans square that new-found lesson on double standards with the fact that another tax-dodging nominee, Tim Geithner, was made Treasury secretary? Or that Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State despite her husband being allowed to accept money for his foundation from foreign governments that also make deals with the top US diplomat?
And what of the White House vetting process or that two Obama nominees are former lobbyists or that the president backed Mr. Daschle to the end?
For a politician who promised a high bar of ethics and a new era of responsibility, this president still has far to go to understand why it is so easy for many in Washington to claim immunity or a sense of entitlement not available or accepted by other Americans.
When the Senate salutes one of its own, Republican Ted Stevens, despite his felony conviction, or the House leaves Democrat Charles Rangel as head of its tax-writing committee despite his avoidance of taxes, such lapses of common sense erode faith in government.
It also makes people wary of bigger government with new programs such as universal healthcare. The more power that Washington commands, the more temptation there is for exploitation by special interests and revolving-door politicians. Daschle, for instance, was slated to head up healthcare reform even though he used his Senate tenure to advise that industry and make millions.
Obama must do more than tinker on the edges of Washington's big-money culture of entitlement. Merely adding restraints on lobbyists, as he did in the first few days, fails to address the way Washington's expanding rulemaking and money dispensing create a larger lure for well-heeled interests to seek favors at the expense of the common good.
He also makes a similar minor reform in his proposal to cap compensation for Wall Street executives at $500,000 if their firms accept federal aid. What he really needs to change are federal incentives for corporations to allow shareholders to have more say over pay packages. He must also change the tax structure to force companies to think more long-term than the next quarterly report.
Greed in government can have as much impact as Wall Street's. Just ask the people of Illinois, which removed a governor who abused his power to extract donations for his election campaign.
Obama's ratings as an ethical leader still remain high. Now he needs to show he also deserves praise for competence in ethics.