Tax Problems Trip Up Administration Picks
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep in Tehran.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne in Washington.
It was a bad day, yesterday, for the White House. Former Senator Tom Daschle was one of two nominees to withdraw from consideration for top administration jobs. He was up for the post of secretary of Health and Human Services and he was also set to lead efforts to overhaul the country's health care system.
In a moment we'll hear more about the outlook, now, for revamping health care. First, NPR's Don Gonyea reports on how yesterday's developments knocked the White House off balance.
DON GONYEA: The first piece of bad news for the White House came in the morning. Nancy Killefer, named to watchdog the performance and effectiveness of government programs, was pulling out over what's believed to be a relatively small problem with back taxes totaling less than $1,000.
Then, early yesterday afternoon, came the big blow: Daschle was stepping aside as a controversy grew over this week's revelations that the former Senate majority leader had paid more than $125,000 in back taxes. Mr. Obama was asked about it in a previously scheduled interview with ABC News. He said the decision was Daschle's.
President BARACK OBAMA: I think he made the assessment that it was going to be too much of a distraction. And the most important thing, from my perspective, is making sure that the American people understand we don't have two sets of rules here, that everybody has responsibilities.
GONYEA: The Daschle announcement was so stunning because there was every indication he'd be confirmed by the Senate. After all, he remains well liked there. But it wasn't just the size of his tax troubles, it was the symbolism, which involved free use of a limousine service in the years since he left the Senate in 2005.
That image clashed with the Obama administration's pledge to change the old Washington way of doing business, a point made in this old 1986 Daschle campaign ad. The ad, which surfaced on the Internet this week, shows Daschle at the wheels of a rusty, old Pontiac.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Man: But after 15 years and 238,000 miles, Tom Daschle still drives his old car to work every day. Maybe he's sentimental - or just cheap. Whatever the case, isn't it too bad the rest of Washington doesn't understand that a penny saved is a penny earned?
GONYEA: The ad and its sudden irony was one thing, Daschle's success since leaving Congress also came to symbolize the way former elected officials can earn huge paychecks consulting and giving speeches. Just as damaging was the fact that Daschle's confirmation hearing was still a full week away, with the final Senate vote likely another week after that. There was too much time for this story to percolate, so Daschle pulled the plug.
Losing two nominees in a single day, both due to delinquent taxes, was a major distraction for the administration. For better or worse, Mr. Obama had already been scheduled to do five back-to-back network TV interviews yesterday afternoon. Daschle became topic number one. The president didn't sugarcoat it. When asked by ABC's Charlie Gibson if it had been an embarrassing day, the president responded that it had.
Pres. OBAMA: And so this was a self-induced injury that I'm angry about.
GONYEA: The mea culpa continued over on Fox News.
Pres. OBAMA: I consider this a mistake on my part, and one that I intend to fix and correct.
GONYEA: And on CNN.
Pres. OBAMA: I think I screwed up and I take responsibility for it.
GONYEA: Over at NBC.
Pres. OBAMA: Did I screw up in this situation? Absolutely, and I'm willing to take my lumps.
GONYEA: And on CBS.
Pres. OBAMA: I was very eager to make sure that we can deliver on a commitment that I have to deliver health care for the American people. I think I messed up.
GONYEA: The president made the calculation that on this day, on this story, that the best approach was to emulate Harry Truman in saying that the buck stops with him. It is a switch from President Bush, who resisted any effort to get him to acknowledge a mistake. The question is how the American public will interpret this new candor.
In the meantime, the Obama administration wakes up today hoping that days like yesterday are extremely rare.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.
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