Stimulus, Partisanship Mean Obama Faces a Harsh New Reality

Although the bill passed the Senate, only three Republicans signed on.


It took only two weeks from Inauguration Day for harsh reality to overtake Barack Obama. But he is now facing a burgeoning list of challenges that have plagued his predecessors for at least a generation, starting with the intense partisanship of Washington and the difficulty of finding compromise on critical issues—coupled with a unique economic crisis that seems to worsen by the day. A massive economic stimulus package passed the Senate Tuesday after winning House approval earlier, but major compromises will be needed to reconcile the two versions of the plan, which Obama says is vital to economic recovery. "The realization hits pretty quickly. He is beginning to confront the enormity of the challenges of governing," says Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker.

And suddenly, there is a new and unexpected question of credibility, because despite Obama's promises of change, the new administration is beginning to look as if it is conducting business as usual. The immediate problem was the sudden withdrawal on February 3 of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle as Obama's nominee for secretary of health and human services and healthcare czar for the entire government. Daschle admitted making a late payment of $140,000 in taxes and interest, but the larger issue was that he seemed to have become part of Washington's elite culture. It turned out, for example, that Daschle failed to pay taxes on the use of a luxury car service and a driver for many months.

Obama offered his personal mea culpas in a round of five television interviews. "Look," he told CNN's Anderson Cooper, "ultimately, I campaigned on changing Washington and bottom-up politics, and I don't want to send a message to the American people that there are two sets of standards, one for powerful people and one for ordinary folks who are working every day and paying their taxes." He added: "I think I screwed up."

Making matters worse was that Daschle withdrew on the same day that management consultant Nancy Killefer backed away from serving as the government's chief performance officer, a new position created by Obama to impose more efficiency and effectiveness on the bureaucracy. Killefer said she also had failed to pay some of her taxes and didn't want to be a distraction. Killefer's and Daschle's withdrawals underscored Obama's difficulty in smoothly populating his cabinet. Several weeks ago, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew as Obama's choice for commerce secretary, saying he didn't want to be a distraction because of a federal investigation into possible ethical abuses in his state administration. Continuing the pattern, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was criticized for his failure to pay some taxes, but he was confirmed by the Senate anyway.

Daschle's withdrawal could have real consequences. With his understanding of healthcare and his knowledge of Capitol Hill, he was considered by Obama the perfect choice to preside over an overhaul of the healthcare system, one of the new president's top priorities. Now, Obama must start from scratch in finding someone to lead that effort. "There was no Plan B," says a White House adviser.

But White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs argues that, in the end, Obama's candor will outweigh the messy appointment process. "He took responsibility in a way people in this country are not used to seeing from a president or from Washington," Gibbs says.

What's gone wrong? Critics say one problem is that the Obama team was in such a rush to fill out the cabinet that there were lapses in checking out the prospective nominees. Another is that the nominees themselves apparently were less than scrupulous in revealing potential problems in their backgrounds.

Political scientist Bill Galston, a former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton, says Obama's difficulties are part of his "shakedown cruise." "The president is getting knocked around a little bit," Galston says, as he learns "the difference between campaigning and governing." His promises to reform Washington are tougher to fulfill than he might have thought, but Obama can't afford to break faith with his supporters. His promise of reform "is a political promissory note, and he'd better redeem it," says Galston.