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Obama Launches Media Blitz

By Dan Froomkin
12:58 PM ET, 02/ 3/2009

The embarrassing disclosures about his nominees' tax problems are making big headlines and the naysayers are dominating the debate over his stimulus package.

So what's a (still) hugely popular president to do? Commandeer the spotlight, that's what.

President Obama sits down this afternoon with ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News to make his case directly to the American people.

Obama will appropriately be questioned about Thomas A. Daschle's decision today to withdraw his nomination to be secretary of health and human services, after it turned out he had failed to pay more than $100,000 in back taxes. Why did Obama stick by Daschle as long as he did? Why did Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner get a pass for his own tax problems? And what's the backstory behind this morning's withdrawal, also apparently because of tax problems, of the nominee to be government spending watchdog?

But Obama inevitably will get a chance to make a pitch for his high-stakes economic stimulus package. And that appeal could be particularly powerful, as I wrote yesterday, if he follows up on his extensive outreach to Republicans by openly discussing the views of his critics, explaining why he disagrees, tracing his thinking and discussing why he made the choices he did.

Andrew Malcolm blogs for the Los Angeles Times about the media blitz: "Obama and the Democrats are losing the Washington-based word war about the economic stimulus package.

"Watch the cable channels. Read the newspapers. The editorial pages if you can. If it's not about the latest would-be Cabinet member to discover inadvertent income tax errors in his favor, it's about how the Democrats, mainly in the House, larded up the economic stimulus legislation with every conceivable favorite Dem goodie from the arts to sexually-transmitted diseases to bee subsidies.....

"So tonight through the network interviews, which will be replayed Wednesday morning, Obama will seek to re-set the focus on economic stimulus. Get the talk back on home turf. Stop playing D."

Mark Silva blogs for Tribune: "Two weeks in office, President Barack Obama confronts an immediate challenge: Holding public support for an economic stimulus plan that he considers essential in the face of strengthening Republican resistance.

"It's a message game, and at the moment, the president may be running behind..

"At a time like this, when most Americans have confidence in the new president - his job approval running at 66 percent in the Gallup Poll's daily tracking surveys - Obama has a receptive audience for his message: Swift action, with a massive spending boost, will help rev up the economy....

"The question, for Obama, will become not only how well he sells his plan today, but how deeply the opposition's message already has sunk in."

Why Daschle Stepped Down

By Dan Froomkin
12:46 PM ET, 02/ 3/2009

Daschle
Daschle at the Senate yesterday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

President Obama's good friend, trusted advisor and would-be health czar withdrew his nomination as secretary of health and human services today as the controversy over his failure to pay back taxes threatened not only to distract attention from the president's agenda but tarnish the president's image.

A good deal of the public's excitement over Obama's presidency has to do with his repeated promise to make "a clean break from business as usual."

That's why his making exceptions from the rules for the people he considers really important had been rubbing so many people the wrong way.

Peter Baker wrote this morning in the New York Times: "During almost two years on the campaign trail, Barack Obama vowed to slay the demons of Washington, bar lobbyists from his administration and usher in what he would later call in his Inaugural Address a 'new era of responsibility.' What he did not talk much about were the asterisks.

"The exceptions that went unmentioned now include a pair of cabinet nominees who did not pay all of their taxes. Then there is the lobbyist for a military contractor who is now slated to become the No. 2 official in the Pentagon. And there are the others brought into government from the influence industry even if not formally registered as lobbyists....

"[W]hen faced with the perennial clash between campaign rhetoric and Washington reality, Mr. Obama has proved willing to compromise.

"'This is a big problem for Obama, especially because it was such a major, major promise,' said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. 'He harped on it, time after time, and he created a sense of expectation around the country. This is exactly why people are skeptical of politicians, because change we can believe in is not the same thing as business as usual.'"

Michael Scherer wrote in Time: "Barack Obama promised during his campaign that lobbyists 'would not get a job in my White House.'"

And while not technically a lobbyist, "Daschle, in fact, made millions of dollars since he left government doing stuff that looks, smells and tastes a lot like lobbying — work that led to the taxes flap that forced him to apologize to his former colleagues on Monday for what he called a 'completely inadvertent' mistake," Scherer writes. "And while it's that failure to pay that more than $128,000 in back taxes and interest that has briefly marred his confirmation as Secretary of Health and Human Services, it's the ethical gray area Daschle's advisory work represents that has called into question Obama's promises of changing the culture of Washington."

Daschle of course was only the second (of now three) nominees with a tax problem. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner was confirmed last week despite his failure to pay more than $25,000 in self-employment taxes.

Peter S. Canellos wrote in his Boston Globe column that the "cost to Obama could be considerable.

"Already, the tax avoidance of his nominees is giving fuel to the late-night comedians who have struggled to develop a take on the new administration. And Obama, whose high-mindedness at times verges on aloofness, will inevitably be attacked for putting his own team's sense of superiority - the belief that Geithner and Daschle are so talented that they're irreplaceable - ahead of the normal sense of accountability that would apply to people who fail to pay their taxes on time.

"Tolerating such lapses could also diminish Obama's moral leadership, the strong voice that rang out in condemning last week's news of the Wall Street bonuses. The president's ability to call a halt to irresponsible behavior by powerful people is needed to fulfill his pledge to reform the political system....

"Obama, whose righteousness has struck a chord with Middle America, would do well to express his own outrage, rather than try to shield his nominees behind his own considerable presence."

The New York Times editorial board this morning called for Daschle to step aside: "The American tax system depends heavily on voluntary compliance. It would send a terrible message to the public if we ignore the failure of yet another high-level nominee to comply with the tax laws."

And, the Times argued: "Mr. Daschle's financial ties to major players in the health care industry may prove to be even more troublesome as health reform efforts proceed....

"Mr. Daschle is another in a long line of politicians who move cozily between government and industry. We don't know that his industry ties would influence his judgments on health issues, but they could potentially throw a cloud over health care reform."

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board wrote: "Obama needs to remember his campaign promise to restrict the influences of lobbying. Daschle, for all of his experience and knowledge of health care, has disqualified himself from this important position because of his own personal greed. The Senate should reject his nomination."

George Packer blogged for the New Yorker: "You can't usher in a shining period of good government by fudging your principles when it matters — with those closest to you....

"For Obama, it's especially important not to have a double standard. A lot of his influence in cleaning up the corruptions of the private sector will be rhetorical. To do what needs to be done with Wall Street, he'll need all the moral authority he can muster. If he allows two tax cheats into his cabinet, he's going to lose a portion of it before his Presidency is one month old."

And then along came number three this morning.

Michael D. Shear and Ed O'Keefe wrote for The Washington Post: "Nancy Killefer, the management consultant and former Treasury official who had been picked by President Obama to serve as the country's chief performance officer, has withdrawn from consideration for the post, White House officials confirmed this morning.

"In a two-paragraph resignation letter, Killefer indicated that controversy over failure to pay taxes by two other high-profile nominees of Obama's had convinced her to decline the new president's request to join his administration. Killefer had a tax lien placed on her house by the D.C. government in 2005 because she had not paid unemployment taxes for her household help."

Stimulus Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:44 PM ET, 02/ 3/2009

President Obama repeated his appeal for support of the stimulus package this morning, as he announced his nomination of Republican Senator Judd Gregg to be commerce secretary.

"Now is the time for Washington to act with the same sense of urgency that Americans all across the country feel every single day. With the stakes this high, we cannot afford to get trapped in the same old partisan gridlock," Obama said -- more than a little bolstered by there being a Republican at his side.

Michael D. Shear and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post: "Obama hosted the Democratic congressional leadership for an hour-long West Wing meeting to discuss the bill's status in the Senate, where lawmakers began formal debate yesterday...

"[T]wo Democratic sources with knowledge of the meeting said the president took a blunt tone with the lawmakers, urging them to drop whatever needs to be cut from the bill to gain bipartisan support and to pass Congress soon.

"One source said Obama appeared to be frustrated by the public perception that the recovery bill was becoming laden with partisan pet projects."

Michael Grunwald writes for Time: "It's hard to take Republican leaders too seriously when they criticize recovery plans for the economy; it's sort of like those geese criticizing evacuation plans for US Air 1549. Their critiques look even goofier when you see their alternatives. They warn that President Obama's stimulus package will explode the debt — so they want to make President Bush's debt-exploding tax cuts permanent. They say Democratic spending plans are full of pork — then they propose an extra $24 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal equivalent of Oscar Meyer. Let's just say their idea bank could use a bailout...

"[T]his crisis is an ideal opportunity for Obama to start keeping his campaign promises: providing tax relief and health security for ordinary Americans, restoring our economic competitiveness, and reducing our dependence on environmentally disastrous fossil fuels that increase the power of our enemies. It's hard to imagine when he'll have a better opportunity. Nothing in the historical record suggests that when Congress has more time to deliberate-and more time to confer with the special-interest lobbyists and local-interest political advisers that dominate the decision-making of its members-it will enact fair tax policies, sustainable energy policies, wise infrastructure policies, responsible fiscal policies or any other policies tainted by long-term thinking or national-interest considerations. If Obama wants to push 21st-century change through Capitol Hill, he needs to use this emergency."

Grunwald argues that Obama "should ignore the partisan gripes about the stimulus becoming a 'Christmas tree.' Congress is about to toss almost $1 trillion into the economy, which means that any stimulus is going to be a Christmas tree, no matter where the gifts are hidden. And in November, America chose its Santa. This might be his best chance to decide who gets the goodies and who gets the lump of coal."

But the critiques are not exclusive to the GOP. It's a big bill. There's a lot to criticize.

Tom Edsall writes for Huffingtonpost.com that "there is a growing chorus of economists, policy specialists, and commentators -- men and women across the ideological spectrum -- who suggest that the legislation falls far short of Obama's own standards, that it is rooted in the past, that it lacks ingenuity, that it is not sufficiently geared toward innovation, that it contains a raft of special interest tax breaks and subsidies, that huge chunks of cash will be funneled through old bureaucratic pipelines, and that the measure will plunge the country deeper into debt with little to show for it.

"'I just don't understand,' said one key Obama transition aides who worked on the economic program, 'how a group of A-level people could produce such a B-minus, C-plus product,' referring to top economic advisers Larry Summers, Jason Furman, and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner."

Poll Watch

By Dan Froomkin
11:52 AM ET, 02/ 3/2009

Susan Page writes for USA Today: "Americans overwhelmingly want Congress to pass an economic stimulus bill, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, but expectations are low that it will help their families or turn the economy around this year....

"There are divisions over just what the package should include. While 17% say Congress should reject a stimulus bill altogether, those who want a stimulus passed are evenly divided over whether Obama's plan should undergo major changes...

"Obama's job-approval rating is 64%, and about an equal percentage say he's moving at the right speed to address the major problems facing the country.

"On a list of significant steps the new president has taken to break with the Bush administration, three of four Americans express approval for several of them, including naming special envoys for the Middle East and for Afghanistan and Pakistan, curbing the role of lobbyists in the Obama administration and instituting higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars.

"However, there was more disapproval than approval for two actions during his first two weeks in office: ordering the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay closed within a year, and lifting restrictions on U.S. funding for overseas family planning organizations that also provide abortion services."

Get Ready for the Next Rumble

By Dan Froomkin
11:50 AM ET, 02/ 3/2009

The question of how to reshape the nation's collapsed financial system hasn't been a big political issue thus far -- in part because the Obama administration has yet to make its intentions clear.

But Peter G. Gosselin writes in the Los Angeles Times that a big partisan battle may be ahead.

"The administration is under mounting pressure to deploy hundreds of billions -- perhaps trillions -- of new dollars to shore up financial firms into which the government has already poured a fortune. Analysts say the only way to make such a politically unpopular step palatable is for the new president to explain what he'll do to ensure the problem never happens again.

"That means a return to the kind of regulatory system that Wall Street and economic conservatives fought to dismantle going back to Ronald Reagan's presidency and continuing through that of George W. Bush -- or something even more stringent....

"Democratic and Republican appointees to a congressionally created panel overseeing the government's $700-billion financial bailout issued drastically different accounts of what needed to be done to keep the nation's banks and markets from veering off course in the future.

"On one side, the Democratic majority, led by Harvard University bankruptcy expert Elizabeth Warren, called for new regulatory structures as sweeping as any since the Great Depression. The framework would be likely to transform how Wall Street does business....

"On the other side, the group's GOP minority suggested that about all that's needed are stricter standards for mortgages and streamlining existing agencies. It strongly implied that the country's financial problems stem mainly from too much, not too little, regulation."

New Era at Justice

By Dan Froomkin
11:49 AM ET, 02/ 3/2009

Eric Holder was sworn in this morning as the nation's new attorney general and declared a "new day" for the Justice Department. "There shall be no place for political favoritism, no reason to be timid in enforcing the laws that protect our rights, our environment and our principles, as long as I have the opportunity to lead this great department.

"This may be a break from the immediate past, but it is consistent with the long history of the Department of Justice.

"I call on every employee of this department, from this moment on, to return to the practices that are the foundation of this entity. It is time, once again, to base our actions on policies that are rooted in fairness and in a desire to ensure a more just America."

Carrie Johnson wrote in this morning's Washington Post: "The Senate confirmed Eric H. Holder Jr. as the nation's first African American attorney general by a vote of 75 to 21 yesterday, opening a new chapter for a Justice Department that had suffered under allegations of improper political influence and policy disputes over wiretapping and harsh interrogation practices....

"The need for new leadership at the Department of Justice is as critical today as it's ever been,' said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). 'This confirmation is going to do a great deal to restore the morale and the purpose throughout the department.'"

Larry Margasak writes for the Associated Press that Holder will "have little time to consider his role in history as he decides which Bush administration counterterrorism policies to reverse....

"For starters, the new attorney general will learn the secrets of the Office of Legal Counsel, whose lawyers justified the use of controversial interrogation tactics and even declined to provide Bush administration documents to internal Justice Department investigators."

Also see my Nov. 19 column, The Attorney General of Rollback.

Honeymoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
11:49 AM ET, 02/ 3/2009

Richard Cohen writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The new Obama administration could use a rewind button. Hit it and we'd go back to those wonderful days of a couple of weeks ago when history was made, change was in the air and all of Washington tingled with anticipation."

Karl Rove Watch

By Dan Froomkin
11:48 AM ET, 02/ 3/2009

Murray Waas reports for TPMMuckraker: "Karl Rove will cooperate with a federal criminal inquiry underway into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and has already spoken to investigators in a separate, internal DOJ investigation into the prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, his attorney said in an interview.

"Rove previously refused to cooperate with an earlier Justice Department inquiry into the firings. The Justice Department's Inspector General and its Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) said in a report released last September detailing their earlier probe of the firings of the U.S. attorneys that their investigation was severely 'hindered' by the refusal by Rove and other senior Bush administration officials to cooperate with the probe."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:13 AM ET, 02/ 3/2009

Tom Toles, Rex Babin, Scott Stantis, Kevin Siers, Pat Oliphant, Robert Ariail, David Fitzsimmons and Dan Wasserman on Obama, Daschle and taxes.

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