Echoes From the Campaign Trail

Former senator Thomas A. Daschle withdrew from consideration as health and human services secretary after his nonpayment of taxes became public.
Former senator Thomas A. Daschle withdrew from consideration as health and human services secretary after his nonpayment of taxes became public. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Michael D. Shear and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 8, 2009

President Obama retreated to the serenity of Camp David for the first time yesterday, 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 then-Sen. Hillary Rodham 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 -- a call and response that became a trademark of his campaign.

In his weekly radio and Internet address yesterday, Obama praised a late-night stimulus deal hatched with a handful of Republicans in the Senate. But in a continuation of warnings about the consequences of delay, he said legislative squabbling should not "make perfect the enemy of the absolutely necessary" or risk turning an economic crisis into a "a national catastrophe."

Tomorrow and Tuesday, Obama will leave 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 Friday briefing.

The situation reminded some in Obama's orbit of one of 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 harking 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 forced Daschle to abandon hopes of becoming secretary of health and human services.

Some asked 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, thinking that 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 D. Podesta, Obama's transition chairman. "But we believed he could be confirmed."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company