By Michael D. Shear and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 7, 2009 4:54 PM
President Obama retreated to the serenity of Camp David for the first time this afternoon, stepping back briefly from a presidency that has quickly found itself tested by a loyal opposition and the loss of the pitch-perfect tone that helped sweep him to office.
Beset by criticism of an alleged ethical double standard over some of his Cabinet choices and an intensifying partisan debate over his economic recovery plan, Obama is attempting a return to the campaign-style approach and aggressiveness that echoes the toughest days of his battle with Hillary Clinton.
In a fiery speech before a gathering of House Democrats in Williamsburg on Thursday night that took place even as he was searching out GOP support for his stimulus package, Obama blasted Republican policies that "for the last eight years doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin." He then led Democratic members of Congress in a familiar chant: "Fired up!" he declared. "Ready to go!" they returned -- voicing a call and response that became a trademark of his campaign.
In his weekly radio and Internet address today, Obama praised a late-night stimulus deal hatched with a handful of Republicans in the Senate. But in a continuation of a week of warnings about the consequences of delay, he warned that legislative squabbling should not "make perfect the enemy of the absolutely necessary" or risk turning an economic crisis into a "a national catastrophe."
On Monday and Tuesday, Obama will leave behind the confines of the White House for town hall meetings in Elkhart, Ind., and Fort Myers, Fla., where he will pitch his economic solutions in a pair of states he worked furiously as a candidate.
"Sounds like the good old days, doesn't it?" press secretary Robert Gibbs said to reporters at his briefing yesterday.
The situation reminded some in Obama's orbit of what was among his greatest setbacks in the campaign season. After his defeat in the New Hampshire primary, Obama's supporters worried that he had grown complacent. The campaign took the criticism to heart and resolved not to lose focus or take for granted that his oratorical skills alone could carry them.
But in addition to hearkening back to the heady days of the campaign, the trips also appear to be an admission that Obama's honeymoon in Washington evaporated more quickly than his advisers ever imagined.
Obama took office promising tough new ethical standards and boasting of the smoothest presidential transition ever. But in the weeks since, three of his nominees have withdrawn under clouds.
Most damaging was the tax scandal that engulfed former senator Thomas A. Daschle, which removed the man Obama expected to lead his health-care overhaul from a perch in the White House and forcing him to abandon hopes of becoming secretary of health and human services.
Some questioned why the president's vetting procedures missed crucial information. But the problem, aides said, was not that Obama's team was unaware of the multiple tax problems of his nominees. They knew and dismissed them, believing the public and Congress would see the national crises the nominees were expected to confront as more important.
"We knew he'd get punched around on this and that [Daschle] had made a painful mistake," said John Podesta, Obama's transition chairman. "But we believed he could be confirmed."
Obama's top aides say that in their enthusiasm for his picks, they rationalized away the regard for principles that had guided them during much of the rough-and-tumble campaign.
"We lived it for two years, and we forgot it for a couple of weeks," Gibbs said during an interview last week.
The tax issue also claimed the president's nominee for chief government performance officer, Nancy Killefer. A grand jury investigation of state contracting claimed his original pick for Commerce Secretary, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. And Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner won approval, despite his failure to pay some taxes on time .
Obama's senior staff members blame themselves for leading their boss "astray." One top adviser said that he and others around the president misread the signals that would be sent to Americans by sticking with Daschle.
But Obama aides said they have learned from the mistakes, which the president himself admitted publicly in television interviews last week. White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig is taking control of future vetting of nominees. And the senior staff -- stationed just outside the Oval Office -- are vowing to better serve Obama in the future.
"There's no doubt that everyone here has been doing some soul-searching about how this happened," senior adviser David Axelrod said in an interview. "This was a bracing moment, because it does remind you of how easy it is -- for what feels like all good reasons -- to say, 'Well we can overlook this one or that one.' "
Axelrod and other longtime aides have reemerged this weekend as public spokesmen, armed with simple messages as they were during the moments of the presidential campaign when Obama seemed to struggle with his voice.
Yesterday, even as senators debated the stimulus package, Axelrod was on CNN boiling the economic message down.
"We have an economic catastrophe," he told Wolf Blitzer, host of CNN's "Situation Room." "We don't have time to wait. Every day, the economy is sliding further."
During the general election, Obama seemed able to hit precisely the right notes on the economy. As his opponent, Sen. John McCain, flailed in his response to the economic collapse, even briefly suspending his campaign, Obama gave the appearance of being cool in comparison to his rival, whom Democrats were quick to paint as "erratic."
But now, it is the economy that is proving Obama's greatest challenge, and the president's trips on Monday and Tuesday are designed to underscore his message about the need for immediate action from Congress.
Obama's sudden push to directly engage the public on his stimulus plan is a clear shift in strategy: As recently as Thursday, officials had said he did not need to do more to sell the package.
Then, yesterday, when his travel plans were announced, White House officials also stepped up their effort to localize the problem. As new unemployment figures came out, the administration used geographically specific language to describe them. Gibbs said the number of jobs lost in January -- 598,000 -- was "the equivalent of losing every job in the state of Maine." (It was no coincidence that the state he chose is home to two moderate Republican senators who were central to negotiations on the bipartisan compromise.)
By definition, the fact that Obama was still campaigning for his economic package -- with just days left until his self-imposed deadline for passing it -- meant that things had not gone as smoothly as planned. White House officials acknowledged as much.
"I don't think we're where we want to be, because there's not a bill that has the president's signature affixed to it," Gibbs said.
Still, he insisted that the president was not to blame. Asked whether the message had not gotten through, Gibbs said it had not.
"No, I think the message has. I think we've made significant progress through the legislative process. I think, whether it's today or the next few days, we'll make -- we'll take more important steps toward moving this thing forward."
Staff writer Alec MacGillis contributed to this report.