Analysis: Daschle debacle humbles Obama

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two weeks into his presidency, Barack Obama proved that even a clearly gifted politician cannot escape the gravitational pull of Washington forces that have humbled many of his predecessors.

The new president, seen by some as arrogant, was anything but on Tuesday.

"I screwed up," Obama said repeatedly during a series of TV interviews. "I take responsibility for this mistake."

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 turns 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 may be more ordinary than some admirers would like to admit. He will surely struggle, over the coming weeks and months, with the economy, health care, military matters and Congress, much as other presidents have.

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, he seemed to be trying to learn from their mistakes to cut his losses.

President Bill Clinton stuck with Zoe Baird, his pick for attorney general, for about 10 days after it was disclosed that she had hired illegal immigrants as workers and had failed to pay their Social Security taxes. Clinton's next choice, Kimba Wood, withdrew after acknowledging that her nanny, too, had been illegal.

It was a painful start for a new presidency that Obama and his aides have studied closely. Obama has tapped many of Clinton's top advisers, including his wife, for his own administration. And the Obama team has tried to avoid some of Clinton's early mistakes, such as waiting too long to name top appointees and stumbling into sticky issues such as gays in the military.

Oddly, perhaps, Obama and his advisers did trip over an issue that bedeviled Clinton's early weeks: the failure to pay taxes fully and on time.

At first, Obama dug in, eager to show loyalty and toughness in the face of critics. The man he chose 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 Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader chosen by Obama to head Health and Human Services and to lead an overhaul of health care.

Daschle had more status and clout in Washington, with many senators considering him a friend and mentor. But his money problems were bigger than Geithner's.

Daschle belatedly paid $128,203 in taxes and $11,964 in interest. He also had been paid $5.2 million over two years by industries eager for good relations with the government.

A chastened Daschle apologized in public and then in private to his old Senate colleagues, saying he was embarrassed by his mistakes. After his closed-door session with Senate Finance Committee members Monday night, many senators seemed to think he would be confirmed.

But Republicans made it clear his ride would not be easy, something the White House could not miss. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called on Daschle to withdraw Tuesday morning, shortly before it was announced he was doing just that.

"If Senator Daschle cares about President Obama's success and the success of this new administration," Cornyn said, "he ought to remove this distraction."

Still, Daschle could have survived, several Democrats said. But a separate, less-noticed tax problem also was about to play out, and the combination seemed too much for the new presidency.

The Associated Press had disclosed that in 2005 the District of Columbia filed a $946 tax lien on the home of Nancy Killefer — nominated by Obama to be the government's first chief performance officer — for failure to pay unemployment compensation tax on household help. Killefer withdrew her nomination early Tuesday, saying she did not want to become a distraction for the young administration.

Less than three hours later, Daschle gave the same reason for withdrawing.

It was the administration's lowest point so far. And in the end, the problem was Obama's, not Daschle's.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., noted "the fact that President Obama has said that he wants to stop the revolving door, that he doesn't want lobbyists as part of his administration."

"Well, I don't know how you get paid $2 million by a lobbying firm and not call yourself a lobbyist," Ensign said, referring to Daschle.

Another Republican, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, offered the best justification for Obama giving up on Killefer and his good friend Daschle.

"I think the story has largely ended," McConnell told reporters shortly after noon. Daschle "has withdrawn, and the administration will be looking for a new nominee for secretary of health and human services."

In his inaugural address, Obama said: "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

The same words applied Tuesday to his administration, a feeling that Clinton and other past presidents could surely appreciate.

EDITOR'S NOTE _ Charles Babington covers the White House for The Associated Press.