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The Obama team's image of steely resolve gets a bit tarnished

By Michael D. Shear
Thursday, July 22, 2010; 8:35 AM

At the height of the 2008 presidential campaign, as Barack Obama started the search for a running mate, the media seized onto a story about Jim Johnson, the man Obama had chosen to lead the search.

Reports started emerging that Johnson had received a sweetheart mortgage from Countrywide, a firm he had once regulated, and as the media frenzy began, Obama and his top aides huddled to discuss it.

David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, later called it a "Grade-A s---storm."

"The day the story broke, we discussed on our nightly call with Obama whether we needed to ask Jim to step down; Barack wanted to think about it overnight," Plouffe wrote in his memoir.

"He almost never made rash decisions and didn't want to start doing so now," Plouffe wrote. "Most political figures react and make decisions based on someone else's timeline -- the media's or their opponents'. Obama had the composure and fortitude to set his own clock."

The remarkable thing about those words is how novel they seem today, in the wake of the decision to fire USDA official Shirley Sherrod with no more than a few minutes' consideration, in the midst of a media maelstrom.

There was no composure or fortitude on display in responding to the video clip circulated by a well-known conservative blogger. There was no attempt to take a deep breath and think about it overnight. It was, Obama officials acknowledge, a rash decision made without serious thought.

"Members of this administration, members of the media, members of different political factions on both sides of this have all made determinations and judgments without a full set of facts," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters. "I think that is wholly and completely accurate. I think without a doubt Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology. I would do so certainly on behalf of this administration."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who took responsibility Wednesday for Sherrod's firing, said simply, "It was a decision I regret having made in haste."

If there is one thing to remember about the 2008 presidential campaign, it is the unflappability of the Obama staff. No matter how hard the Hillary Clinton campaign or, later, the John McCain team tried, Obama and his top staff never let them get under their skin, or knock them off their message.

But such discipline has not been a hallmark of the Obama presidency, and certainly not of the past 48 hours, leaving Democratic allies and former Obama confidants speechless.

Administration officials said Wednesday that the White House itself had not been involved in the firing. They said -- and Vilsack insisted -- that it had been his decision, and his alone, to fire her based on the transcript he had seen from the snippet of video on the Internet.

But in the end, it was the White House which was stuck with the repeated questions about why officials had acted without at least asking some questions about the video, or about Sherrod's background and history at the agency.

Gibbs had few answers.

The OTHER big news of the day

Perhaps the worst thing for the administration is that the Sherrod affair overwhelmed the story that the White House had wanted to dominate headlines and cable news shows.

It had orchestrated a bill-signing ceremony for the president's Wall Street reform legislation, gathering 400 people together at the Ronald Reagan Building and finding some "real people" to stand with Obama on the stage.

However, it was all swallowed up by the Sherrod story, a reflection of the priorities of the modern media environment. Few questions for Gibbs at his daily briefing were about the landmark legislation.

Wednesday's event may not have broken through. But Obama aides promised that the president will continue to use the new Wall Street rules to draw more distinctions between Democrats and Republicans ahead of November's elections, casting his own party as the friends of Main Street America and his rivals as the party of Wall Street.

On the schedule

Today, the White House will try to move on.

Obama will try again with a bill-signing, affixing his signature to a bill that seeks to reduce improper payments to individuals and businesses, saving billions for the government.

And he hopes to sign another bill in the afternoon, restoring emergency jobless benefits to those out of work for more than six months. (The House is expected to pass the measure today, then send it straight to Obama's desk.)

The president will also meet privately with foreign policy and economic advisers.

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