Yesterday was not a good day for President Obama.
The sudden withdrawal of former Sen. Tom Daschle as his nominee for secretary of health and human services was damaging to the new president in several ways. Daschle was chosen to be the administration's point man on healthcare reform—a sort of governmentwide healthcare czar. Now, his departure will set back Obama's goal of overhauling the healthcare system as quickly as possible.
Daschle's exit also raised questions about Obama's credibility as an agent of change. On Monday, the president said he was "absolutely" committed to Daschle, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs argued that Daschle was uniquely qualified for the HHS job. Yesterday morning, those expressions of support were erased by Daschle's pullout. Obama issued a statement that he accepted Daschle's withdrawal with "sadness and regret."
The reasons for Daschle's exit were embarrassing on several levels. The former senator admitted making a late payment of $140,000 in taxes and interest, which was bad enough. But it also turned out that he seemed to have become a part of Washington's insider culture—a culture that Obama had railed about during the campaign. What upset many reformers was that Daschle failed to pay taxes in a timely way for use of a luxury car service and a driver over several years. In announcing his withdrawal, Daschle said being HHS secretary requires a leader who will "operate with the full faith of Congress and the American people." He added: "Right now, I am not that leader and will not be a distraction."
His wording was familiar. The same day, Nancy Killefer announced that she was withdrawing her nomination to be the government's chief performance officer, a new position created by Obama to shape up the bureaucracy. She also ran into trouble for not paying all her taxes and, like Daschle, said she didn't want to be a distraction.
All this followed the withdrawal of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as the nominee for commerce secretary several weeks ago because, he said, he didn't want to be a distraction amid a federal investigation into possible ethical abuses in his state administration. Finally, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was criticized by some legislators for his own failure to pay taxes, but he won Senate confirmation anyway.
Regarding Daschle and Killefer, Gibbs told reporters, "They both recognized that you can't set an example of responsibility but accept a different standard in who serves."
Even Obama's critics praised him for taking the blame. He did so in interviews with five television networks yesterday—ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC. Those sessions had been scheduled earlier to allow Obama to promote his economic recovery package. But they turned into a string of mea culpas.
"I think I made a mistake," Obama told CNN's Anderson Cooper, adding, "I take responsibility for the appointees ... I think my mistake is not in selecting Tom originally" because Daschle was as well equipped as anyone to understand the details of health policy and the politics of getting reform legislation passed in Congress.
"Look," Obama said, "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 screwed up."