His infant presidency already shaped by mounting national troubles, President Barack Obama now faces an added challenge: weathering the fallout of a spate of nomination glitches.
"I screwed up," Obama said repeatedly after two top nominees withdrew their names from consideration, saying they wanted to avoid becoming distractions for the president as he seeks to move ahead with an ambitious agenda. "I’m frustrated with myself, with our team."
In a series of Oval Office interviews with TV network anchors Tuesday, he took the blame for the nomination missteps and vowed to live up to the new era of responsibility he mapped out during his inauguration speech just two weeks ago.
Earlier, over the course of a few hours, Obama’s close friend Tom Daschle abandoned his bid to become health and human services secretary and the administration’s point man on reforming health care, and another high-profile nominee — Nancy Killefer — stepped down from a newly created position charged with eliminating inefficient government programs.
Personal tax failures dogged both, and Daschle’s woes only grew over the past five days; he also faced questions about potential conflicts of interest related to his work with health care interests. All that set the stage for potentially difficult Senate confirmation battles that could further damage and embarrass Obama
Daschle and Killefer were only the latest nomination woes for the president.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had tax troubles, too, but the Senate ultimately confirmed him. And, last month, Obama’s initial choice for Commerce secretary, Bill Richardson, stepped aside amid a grand jury investigation into a state contract awarded to his political donors. The president named Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., to the post Tuesday.
Taken together, the problems called into question the thoroughness of Obama’s vetting process as the Democrat’s team pushed to put his Cabinet and White House team in place at a lightning-quick pace after last fall’s election. The problems also threatened to undercut Obama’s promise to change business as usual in Washington; previous presidents have faced similar problems with their nominees.
Even as he works to stabilize the rapidly worsening economy and plan for a troop decrease in Iraq and increase in Afghanistan, Obama’s most immediate objective now is to move on from what the White House called an "embarrassment."
He must quickly find someone with Daschle’s health care expertise and Washington connections who can sail through the confirmation process and make good on the president’s pledge to move toward universal health care coverage in his first 100 days.
That certainly won’t be easy given that Daschle is considered a major authority on the issue and has spent some three decades in Washington, most in the Senate, where he once was majority leader. He was going to have played two roles for Obama as the White House health czar, with a West Wing office, and as the secretary of the Health and Human Services Department.
Among possible options: Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and others with state and national leadership credentials, including Howard Dean, the physician and former Vermont governor who just stepped down as the national Democratic Party chairman, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland.
Despite the loss, the White House promised to move ahead with health care reform. It was set to showcase a first step Wednesday when Obama signs legislation to expand health coverage for uninsured children of low-income working parents.
"We’ll miss Sen. Daschle’s leadership," said White House senior adviser David Axelrod, "but this issue has great power of its own."
"I don’t think the effort slows down for health care reform, and I think Sen. Daschle and others would admit that the effort is far bigger than any one individual," added presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs. He said that work on reforming health care already is under way by many people in the administration and it won’t stop while a replacement nominee is sought.
Democratic leaders in Congress also promised to push forward.
"We’re going to do health care reform," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said flatly after the nomination withdrawal. Still, his No. 2 in the Senate, Illinois’ Dick Durbin, said, "It really sets us back a step."