President Barack Obama scrambled Tuesday to regain control of his political message.
A series of tax and vetting scandals has forced one of Obama’s most important nominees to withdraw and raised questions about the new president’s central campaign pledge to change politics as usual.
In response, Obama — fearing a lingering ethics dispute would undercut his claims to moral high ground and cripple his presidency in just its second week — abruptly abandoned his nomination fight for Tom Daschle and a second major appointee who also failed to pay all her taxes.
“I screwed up,” Obama declared.
“It’s important for this administration to send a message that there aren’t two sets of rules — you know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes,” Obama said near the end of a day of jarring developments, a little more than 24 hours after he had said he was “absolutely” committed to Daschle’s confirmation.
“I’m frustrated with myself, with our team. … I’m here on television saying I screwed up,” Obama said on NBC’s “Nightly News with Brian Williams.” He repeated virtually the same words in interviews with anchors on the other TV networks.
Hours earlier, the White House had announced that Daschle had asked to be removed from consideration as health and human services secretary and Nancy Killefer had made the same request concerning what was to be her groundbreaking appointment as a chief performance officer to make the entire government run better.
It was a frank admission from an Oval Office where “mistakes were made” has often been the preferred dodge.
An old story, with new actors, played out Tuesday: A new president’s team imperfectly vetted top nominees. The nominees, it turned out, had not paid taxes for household help or other services when they were private citizens. The news media and political adversaries bored in. And rather than spend more valuable time and political capital defending the appointees, the administration dropped them and moved on.
In other words, Obama isn’t perfect. This may be news to his adoring supporters, but like other presidents, Obama is going to make more mistakes over the coming months as he struggles with the economy, health care, military matters and Congress.
That’s hardly an indictment. But Obama’s rocket ride to the White House, his extraordinary speaking skills, and his smooth, I-don’t-sweat style had some people calling him “The One,” a once-in-a-generation political leader who could rise above his predecessors’ foibles.
On Tuesday, at least, Obama seemed to be trying to learn from past presidents the need to quickly cut his losses.
It was a painful bump for the new president.
At first, Obama dug in, eager to show loyalty and toughness in the face of critics. His choice for Treasury secretary — a post that oversees the Internal Revenue Service — had been required to pay $34,000 in overdue income taxes.
Obama stood by Timothy Geithner, and the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed him after comparatively gentle questioning.
The stakes seemed higher, on both sides of the equation, for Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader chosen by Obama to head health and human services and an overhaul of health care.
Daschle had more status and clout in Washington, but his money problems were bigger than Geithner’s, too.