WASHINGTON: An embarrassed President Barack Obama sought to recover from his toughest day yet in office after admitting in a series of TV interviews that ‘I screwed up’, as tax troubles tripped up two Cabinet nominees in one day.
In what proved to be the worst day in Mr Obama’s two-week-old presidency, his pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services abruptly withdrew his candidacy on Tuesday.
Former senator Tom Daschle’s sudden exit rocked the capital although he had been under fire for his failure to pay US$140,000 (S$211,000) in taxes on time.
As late as Monday, he had been vigorously seeking the support of his former Senate colleagues while Mr Obama had said he was ‘absolutely’ backing him. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had also tried to deflect attacks, saying: ‘Nobody’s perfect.’
One of Mr Obama’s earliest and closest political allies, Mr Daschle was to have been the pointman to execute an important campaign promise – an ambitious plan to reform the overburdened and complicated health-care system.
His departure was the second blow of the day. Just hours earlier, Mrs Nancy Killefer backed out of the post of Chief Performance Officer, citing failure to pay unemployment taxes for household help. She was to have overseen the effectiveness of federal agencies.
As the laxity in appointing Cabinet members hit the headlines, the talk shows and the blogs, Mr Obama went into damage control mode.
He used a handful of TV interviews – originally meant to canvass support for his economic stimulus package – to say that he was taking responsibility for the mess and to make the case that his administration did not have double standards.
‘I don’t want my administration to be sending a message that there are two sets of rules: one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes every day,’ Mr Obama said in an interview with CBS.
‘I’m frustrated with myself, with our team,’ he told NBC. ‘And I’m here on television saying I screwed up and that’s part of the era of responsibility.’
In another interview, given to ABC, he said: ‘This is a self-induced injury that I’m angry about.’
His nominees’ tax troubles were proving to be a distraction from his urgent economic agenda.
Worse, they made him vulnerable to attacks from the Republicans.
One congressman, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, for instance, said the Democrats could well push for higher taxes, ‘because, you know what – they don’t pay them’.
Mr Obama can hardly afford to ruffle feathers at a time when he is pushing the Senate to pass the centrepiece of his efforts to revive the economy – a stimulus package pivoted on massive public spending that he wants to sign into law in two weeks.
Some of Mr Obama’s other Cabinet picks have also been controversial.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had faced criticism for his tax lapses although the Senate eventually voted to confirm him.
Mr Obama’s first choice for Commerce Secretary, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, dropped out last month due to his involvement in a corruption investigation.
His pick for deputy defence secretary, Mr William Lynn, was until recently a lobbyist for a large defence firm. The appointment would contravene Mr Obama’s own rules to limit the role that lobbyists could play in his administration.
Until now, Mr Obama had been widely praised for the speed and discipline with which he had gone about assembling a Cabinet. Now, the thoroughness of the vetting process for the nominees is in doubt.
The bigger dent is to Mr Obama’s credibility as an agent of change.
The stumbles in the very first two weeks of his administration have raised questions about the intention and ability of the politician who came to power promising to end the ‘politics as usual’ culture of Washington.
Analysts say his personal popularity and the high hopes vested by the American people in his presidency remain his best shields.
Mr Thomas Mann, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, said: ‘The public will give him a pass on this one. His approval ratings will remain high so long as he talks openly and honestly and explains his decisions.’