A Good Day to Get Out of the White House

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

President Obama needed a diversion.

At 11:09 yesterday morning, the White House announced that his nominee to be the administration's chief performance officer had withdrawn because of some underperformance on her taxes. At 12:46 in the afternoon, Tom Daschle, the president's choice to be secretary of health and human services, withdrew his nomination, also because of unpaid taxes.

And so, at 1:49 p.m., Obama hopped in his presidential limousine and took a field trip to a D.C. charter school, where he read a children's book called "The Moon Over Star" to a group of second-graders.

Good thing it wasn't "My Pet Goat."

"We were just tired of being in the White House," Obama told the children.

It was easy to see why. If this is Obama's honeymoon, one shudders to think what a lovers' quarrel would look like.

Workers haven't even finished dismantling the inaugural reviewing stand on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House, yet already the new president has been beset by unruly congressional Democrats, uncooperative Republicans and, worst of all, a series of self-inflicted ethical wounds.

Some of Obama's most fervent supporters are angry that he hired a Raytheon lobbyist to be the Pentagon's No. 2. His Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, was technically not a lobbyist but, like Daschle, made millions in the influence business. A former Goldman Sachs lobbyist will be chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who, like Daschle and performance officer nominee Nancy Killefer, had tax problems.

It didn't help that Daschle and Killefer pulled out on the very day Obama was hosting Brian Williams, Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson, Anderson Cooper and Chris Wallace for afternoon interviews. His sessions with the news anchors turned into a serial mea culpa.

"I messed up," he told CBS's Couric.

"I screwed up," he told NBC's Williams.

"This is a self-induced injury," he told ABC's Gibson.

The news of the day was supposed to have been Obama's announcement of Republican Sen. Judd Gregg to be commerce secretary -- a job Bill Richardson was offered before an influence-peddling investigation got in the way. But the Daschle and Killefer withdrawals quickly buried the Gregg news, and Obama retreated to Capital City Public Charter School, where he discussed Batman and Spiderman.

Back at the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs was left to slug it out in the briefing room: "Are there other nominees with tax problems?" "What happened to the vetting process here?" "Is there anybody at the White House taking responsibility for what has been a very messy confirmation process?" "Do you believe that cutting these nominees loose will help restore the president's credibility on changing the culture in Washington?"

Gibbs replied with time-honored platitudes, such as "The president has confidence in the process" and "I'm not going to spend a lot of time up here today looking through the rearview mirror." But this only led reporters to taunt the new press secretary: "This is a valid question, Robert! . . . You don't want to talk about it."

So much for No-Drama Obama.

With the economy collapsed, the contretemps over personnel and taxes are hardly the nation's most pressing business. But Obama has been hoisted by the high expectations he set on the campaign trail, when he promised an administration without lobbyists and a new era of responsibility. The contradiction between such promises and his early hires led to some tense exchanges in the briefing room yesterday.

"If loopholes and exceptions are built in for various appointees who've lobbied in the past," asked Peter Nicholas of the Los Angeles Times, "and if key appointees are showing to have had problems in terms of not having paid back taxes, is there a risk that this administration, in its ethics practices, begins to look like every other that preceded it?"

Gibbs argued that ethics watchdog groups have praised Obama for "the strongest ethics and accountability rules of any administration in the history of this country."

"But Robert," interjected Fox News's Major Garrett, "didn't they say that before the exemptions and loopholes?"

"No," Gibbs shot back, eventually closing the argument with Garrett by referring to the "fair and balanced standard that many in your network have."

But it wasn't just Fox. David Corn of Mother Jones asked Gibbs whether it's "more difficult than you or the president imagined to actually change the ways of Washington?"

"I think the president would say to you that he didn't believe that we were going to change the way Washington has worked the past three decades in the first two weeks of this administration," the press secretary replied.

But the president, returning to the White House from his "Moon Over Stars" reading, had a more thoughtful response when he sat down with the network anchors.

"I made a mistake," he told CNN's Cooper. "I campaigned on change in Washington, 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 everyday and paying taxes."

Well said. Now, is it too late to rebook that honeymoon?

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