So it turns out Barack Obama is not immune to the laws of political gravity after all.
As Tom Daschle’s nomination for health and human services secretary slammed to a halt in a pile of broken glass, there was relief among Obama supporters, who will not have to defend a choice that was becoming increasingly hard to defend.
But the Daschle crash was only the latest episode amid several in recent days on a similar theme: Ushering a new era of accountability, civility, and ethics in Washington looks easier from the outside than from the inside.
Old Washington is colliding with the new White House on other fronts, as well.
The president’s attempts to create a rapport with Republicans have been met more often than not with rebukes.
And Obama’s own Democratic colleagues in the House have complicated his effort to shepherd through Congress a nearly $900 billion stimulus bill that he’d hoped would be on his desk on Inauguration Day.
Take a deep breath: Bungled nominations, partisan showdowns, and congressional intrigue all happen to be business as usual for new presidents.
But there is a difference this time, said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. “Obama’s problem is there were higher expectations for his administration,” Jacobson said, since he has staked so much of his reputation on the assertion that he represents an abrupt break from business as usual.
In an interview with NBC News, Obama conceded as much when he said his administration had “screwed up” by sending a message that there are two sets of rules, “one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who to have to pay their taxes.”
“I’m frustrated with myself, with our team, but ultimately my job is to get this thing back on track because what we need to focus on is a deteriorating economy and getting people back to work,” the president added.
The contradictions appeared in concentrated form Tuesday, in the space of just a few hours.
On Capitol Hill, senators still processing the news that Daschle hadn’t paid nearly $140,000 in taxes learned that Obama’s pick for chief performance officer, Nancy Killefer, was withdrawing her name because she failed to pay less than $1,000 taxes for household help.
At the Justice Department, Eric Holder, who was plucked to serve from one of the city’s influential lobbying and law offices, was being sworn in as attorney general.
And at the White House, Obama stood in the grand foyer to announce his nomination of Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) to become commerce secretary, a vacancy created after his first pick, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, withdrew amid a scandal investigation.
The president opened the Gregg event by talking about the need to get the economy going again. He ended it by ignoring a shouted question from a reporter about the tax troubles of his cabinet nominees.
The performance recalled one of Obama’s strengths on the 2008 campaign trail, when he had a disciplined ability to float above the daily fray — rarely yielding to pressure from outside groups or editorialists on matters of policy and personnel.
That’s a lot harder to do as president, when the spotlight is even more unwavering and the accountability for concrete decisions is more direct.
White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs said Daschle and Killefer withdrew voluntarily after concluding they would tarnish Obama’s mandate for change.
“I think they both recognize that you can’t set a standard of responsibility but set a different example in who serves,” said Gibbs.
But others claim Obama has, in fact, done that by issuing waivers to allow lobbyists to claim top administration jobs even as he imposes stiff new rules aimed at limiting his administration’s contacts with outside lobbyists.
Those contradictory messages have mystified and frustrated Obama’s allies in good government groups.
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s failure to pay about $26,000 in Social Security and Medicare taxes became a late night, talk show joke and a gripe for the public. According to a Fox News poll, only 35 percent of the public approved of Geithner’s confirmation while 44 percent disapproved.
Before Daschle withdrew, influential women were disturbed by the White House’s apparent loyalty to Daschle while Killefer was out the door. “How is it possible that they will go to the mat for Geithner and Daschle, who had huge amounts of unpaid taxes, and walk Nancy Killefer down the plank in a heart beat?” asked Melanie Sloane, founder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Public polls indicate that that series of personnel decisions, each made in isolation, had begun to reach a politically dangerous critical mass.
A daily Rasmussen Reports poll of presidential approval on Tuesday showed 37 percent of the nation’s voters strongly approved of Obama’s leadership, the lowest rating since Election Day.
Assuming Obama can put the nomination sagas behind him, he still must gain control of the drafting and passing of the stimulus legislation.
The president promised on the campaign trail to give both Democrats and Republicans greater voices in his administration, rather than follow the top-down model of the Bush Administration.
But House Democrats did him no favors when they inserted a relatively small group of specific projects into the package and gave Republicans a chance to attack the entire bill as pork barrel spending.
The opposition strategy worked. According to the Ramsmussen, support for the stimulus package has begun to slip. Last week, 45 percent of likely voters supported the package; this week it was 42 percent.
That erosion of support for the package helps explain the White House decision to launch an aggressive campaign to sell the public on the package. Obama on Tuesday was scheduled to conduct five network interviews on the subject.
But Obama’s brief public appearance to announce the Gregg nomination made it obvious that the network reporters would have other questions to ask – about Daschle and the president’s other tax-challenged nominees.
“It’s interesting because he had until recent days a brilliant transition by all the checklists,” said Stephen Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute.
“It looked like, for the first time since Ronald Reagan, that a president-elect had hit the ground running. Now, in the blink of an eye, we have a president who hit the ground stumbling,” he added.
Charles Mahtesian contributed to this article.